News & Politics

Marriage and Its Discontents

Authors Cathi Hanauer and Daniel Jones discuss the challenges of navigating the funhouse world of post-modern matrimony.
As men and women struggle to find a balance between careers and family, tradition and independence, lasting love and fleeting lust, they find few easy answers. "It's complicated," seems to be the best we can do when faced with the exigencies of the post-modern marriage. And yet the complaints sound very much the same: Women want their husbands to do more around the house and with the kids; men wish their wives were less involved with their every move, and both yearn for a few moments of peace, quiet, and yes, solitude.

And who better to shed light on this He said/She said discourse of marital confusion than two people married to each other. Daniel Jones and Cathi Hanauer are each editors of a collection of essays that explore the funhouse world of matrimony from the perspective of men and women, respectively.

Hanauer's "The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage" came out in 2003 and quickly became a fixture on the New York Times bestseller list. Hanauer soon after challenged her husband to put together the masculine response to Bitch. The result: "The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom," which was released earlier this year.

At the core of both Bitch and Bastard are explorations of what writer Kevin Canty describes in his unflinching essay, "The Dog in Me," as a world where "something's come loose, something's come unglued ... we no longer feel quite comfortable in our roles, no longer quite fit the people we imagine ourselves to be."

AlterNet spoke to Cathi Hanauer and Daniel Jones from their home in Northampton, MA.


"The Bitch in the House" offers a startling window into the deep- seated anger that women struggle with in their everyday lives. What led you to this project?

CATHI: Bitch came from what was on the mind of my peers – those of us who were ambitious working mothers with young children and who were feeling overwhelmed by the juggling act their lives had become. We wanted to know: How are we supposed to do it all?

We were also trying hard to grapple with co-parenting; I felt disillusioned with the way it was turning out back then. So the book began to evolve into the story of my life and what I was going through right then. And the more I looked into that, the more I realized there was a story there.

What was this anger really about? Were all women feeling it, or just working mothers of young kids? So I expanded the book to include ambitious, thinking women of all generations (ages 24 to 67) in all situations talking about the choices they'd made – what was working and what was not, in this post-feminist, supposedly egalitarian society.

"Bastards on the Couch" is, of course, a response to Bitch. When did the alarm bells go off – when did you realize that a man's point of view was sorely needed?

DANIEL: One went off when a reviewer of Bitch said about a husband of one of Cathi's contributors: "He can't be trusted with simple tasks." I knew this guy. He was an Ivy League-educated man at the peak of his profession, Someone who coached his son's little league team, cleaned the house and helped out as much as he could. And yet he couldn't be trusted with simple tasks?

In the case of Bastards, a lot of guys I knew were thinking: Where and when did I become the bad guy? I'm more involved in my children's lives than ever before. I'm supporting my wife in her career choices. I'm trying to split our responsibilities down the middle. Yet somehow I've become the bad guy.

Often they aren't the bad guys so much as they're the most convenient recipients of their wives' frustrations. But also, traditional role models are hard to shake. No matter how enlightened we all try to be, many of us spent our entire childhoods absorbing the often more traditional roles of our parents. So it's not so surprising, to me at least, that we lapse into those roles every now and then.

A lot of the problems discussed in both your books are due to children and how they turn lives upside down. You come away feeling as though having kids is a bad idea.

CATHI: For women especially – but it applies for men, too – there's a maternal instinct that conflicts directly with ambition, or at least it seems to. It's something you don't face until you have a child. You can't understand the intensity of that dilemma, and the conflicts it can cause if you're a working woman until you become a parent.

Then begins the dilemma: Am I going to work or am I going to take care of my baby? And if I have to do both – or I want to do both – how can I find the time and the energy for it? The cliché that she has two full-time jobs is true. So suddenly she's completely overwhelmed, at least when the baby is young and if she has the sort of career that's unforgiving.

DANIEL: That's the great awakening for a lot of women these days. She's zooming along through college then into a career and on up the ladder. Then suddenly she's home with the baby and thinking: So how is this supposed to work? And then her husband's paternity leave ends – if he even gets one – and he heads back to work.

I think this is where the resentment begins for many career women. Not because she doesn't want to be with her baby, but because she's the one being tugged in two directions and he usually isn't. In his essay ["My Problem with Her Anger"], Eric Bartels says fathers may miss being with their children when they're at work, but they won't feel guilty because they are doing what they are programmed to do.

CATHI: Mothers give birth and are wired to be responsible for our children. It's not easy, especially if you're like me – a high-stress, high-energy working type – to try to calm down and run a family after 33 years. I was shocked at how hard it was; how much guilt and pressure I constantly felt. So, OK, in that sense kids are the problem –

DANIEL: – but only a problem because we love them so much.

In her essay, "Attila the Honey I'm Home," Kristin van Ogtrop describes herself and her husband as "partners in martyrdom." Is it ultimately a bad idea for both partners to have demanding, successful careers?

CATHI: No, I don't think so, but you need outside help, and you have to be a certain kind of couple who can live with it. Frankly, a lot of kids grow up with great nannies and do great.

I would never say that woman shouldn't have high-power jobs. A lot of women who have jobs like that have stay at home husbands. Remember, Jane Swift was governor of Massachusetts and when she had twins she had to step down. A man wouldn't have had to step down.

I grew up in the generation of women who really did believe we could do it all. But now that we've arrived I see how complicated it is. Not impossible, but complicated.

Kristin's essay was about a mother torn between her office and her home. It struck a nerve both with women who'd chosen to combine work and kids – who really appreciated it – and women who'd given up work to stay home, many of whom were bitterly angered by it. And that's interesting in and of itself. Her piece ran in Glamour, and one reader wrote in and said, "I hate you and your entire family.' Now, there's a happy stay-at-home mom. Not!

DANIEL: For a lot of power couples, the question of who leaves work earlier and goes home first is a sad one. It makes one person's career suffer; the kid becomes a career drainer. I find it an irresolvable dilemma with power couples.

How do you make it work in your own marriage?

CATHI: I'm not advocating a return to traditional roles, but that's partially what has happened to Dan and I. After twelve years of marriage, we realized that I do certain things better and that Dan does certain things better, and a lot of those things break down along traditional roles.

I go to the grocery shop, buy kids clothes, etc. What do I get in return – he's going to deal with the cars and the yard. But women are obsessed with who is doing more because they usually are the ones doing more. Women are constantly the ones seeing to the needs of everyone else.

DANIEL: That's because women think there is more to be done than there actually is.

CATHI: Or that's because men are able to artificially turn it all off.

DANIEL: Even when men think they're stepping up to the plate and doing their fair share, they are never doing it right. It always has to be done on the woman's terms

CATHI: This puts women in the position of the foreman – and they don't want to be the foreman – and makes them feel like bitches. And when they are angry, the first thing that goes is the sex.

If you were writing a piece right now about marriage through the lens of your own, what would you write about?

CATHI: I would write about traditional roles and the shift toward a more traditional place in our marriage and what is good and bad about that. How I've let go of some of my ideals and what I expect in return.

There's a certain level of politeness and decency that can get lost in those years where you are both struggling to do all these things, to be equals. I've come much more around to being a more traditional woman than I was five or ten years ago. There were years when I was struggling with being a woman, but now I embrace it more. And, in a way, now that I (do so), I expect Dan to behave in more traditional ways.

Dan writes about this very issue – being confused about what women expect from men – in his essay, "Chivalry on Ice."

DANIEL: Some of the lack of caretaking comes from being locked in competition with each other. It's like striking a balance between pure egalitarianism and reality. Men have become so disarmed by women's independence that they don't know what to do. Am I supposed to hail the taxi? Should I hold open the door? They just don't know.

What were the trickiest or most taboo topics for each of you to tackle?

CATHI: I had a hard time getting women to talk about money. Specifically, getting women to admit that they make more money than their husbands. If they do make more, women feel like it's a betrayal to say that publicly. Yet it is OK for a woman to say I'm not giving him sex.

DANIEL: And for men it's taboo to say: I'm not giving my wife sex. Less so than for women.

It's clear the dynamics of marriage have changed over the past few decades, but what about our conception of masculinity?

DANIEL: Masculinity has always been associated with power, and it's this power that men are losing in relationships, in marriage, and in the workplace. Manny Howard writes a wonderfully soul-searching essay ["Embracing the Little Steering Wheel"] about how his wife out-earns him by twenty times and how he's okay with this. He really is okay with it, but then at a certain point he wonders if he really is okay with it. Because what kind of a man is he when his wife, who controls the purse strings, is also able to call many of the shots in their marriage?

He senses that this inequality is what makes his marriage work, where his previous marriage failed because he and his wife were so equal and competitive. But how does this inequity affect his sense of manhood? It's all wrapped up in power and he knows it.

Likewise, Rob Jackson, who writes about being a stay-at-home dad for the past fifteen years. He never got a paycheck for more than $200 during this time and he concedes that this gave his wife a certain influence over the family that he lacked, even though he was doing all the grunt work.

For many men, I don't think the notion of masculinity has changed at all. It's just that they question their ability to be traditionally 'masculine' when they are in a position of weakness or financial dependency in relation to the women in their lives.

But is Rob really happy?

DANIEL: I think in Rob's case he really wasn't that ambitious, he didn't find what he was looking for in a career. Then he met a woman who was really ambitious, so they split things up a certain way. And once you get on that track, it's hard to go back. But he's clearly riddled with doubt throughout the piece. He feels good about the job he's done raising his kids, but at the same time he's embarrassed to go back to his hometown.

I wonder how close his feeling is to what women feel entering that kind of marriage today – a woman who probably went to college or even grad school and then thinks about going back to a college reunion and saying, "I'm a stay at home mom."

CATHI: Women today are so polarized. You have the working mothers, the non-working mothers, and the non-mothers. Instead of women being more or less "all in this together," as we were 30 or 40 years ago, we're all so insecure about what we're doing. We're constantly comparing ourselves to each other and coming up short. So you end up being – well, not enemies – but competitors instead of compatriots.

When the stay-at-home mother down the street is out all day with her kids while mine are in daycare so I can work, there's no way that can make me feel good. And when she sees me succeed in my work and bring home an income, well, I won't say how she feels, but I think she must feel something that's not pleasant.

So that's one more way we're no longer all in the same boat, with the same dilemmas and same joys. It's more complicated now.
Larry Smith, a board member of AlterNet's parent organization the Independent Media Institute, is the articles editor at Men's Journal magazine.
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