Deconstructing the "Happy Wife, Happy Life" Myth
Updated: Dec 12, 2021
As I scrolled down the Facebook timeline, I found a repost from a friend that he captioned with a dozen red flag emojis. The original post read, “Y’all ever notice the relationship is only at risk when da woman is unhappy.” The post suggested that men, particularly Black men, “be unhappy hella long and still be thuggin it out.” It then ended with the classic “but y’all not ready for that.”
I assumed my friend meant that the quote was a “red flag,” but based on his interactions with others in the comment section who agreed with the quote, I realized that this was not the case.
I could have forwarded the post to one of my Facebook groups that call out “ashy” or “pick-me” behavior based on misogynoir, but I chose to respond professionally. I doubt the original poster truly cares for a genuine discussion (as opposed to fleeting virality on Facebook); however, I know that others seriously considered this quote to be valid despite the fact that it was based in no factual evidence— just vibes.
Contrary to the ill-informed quote, women being unhappy with relationships but feeling empowered enough to leave them is good. Surprising right? Making men out to be the victims is dishonest.
While their negative feelings about their relationships may be valid, men should be aware that their relationships do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, they exist within a larger patriarchal society. When unhappy, men can still leave relationships, but women are not favored in the power balance of most relationships, thus marriage remains a tool that largely allows exploitation of women. In a predominantly patriarchal society, insisting that men as a whole are victimized by women doesn't make sense.
Sure, about 70% of divorces are initiated by women; however, this is not because we live in a total matriarchal society. We must consider factors that encourage many women to marry or commit to any sort of relationship with a man in the first place such as the financial, legal, or religious.
Despite improvements in financial security, more remain necessary. There is still a pay gap between men and women in nearly every occupation. A 2018 study by the American Association of University Women states that “jobs traditionally associated with men tend to pay better than traditionally female-dominated jobs that require the same level of skill.” When we also account for race, these differences deepen. For instance, those of Black, Hispanic, Native, Southeastern Asian or Pacific Islander heritage face the most inequality compared to White, Chinese or Indian women. After all, the latter are the only women who make average annual earnings higher than the men within the other racial groups. Furthermore, the lack of federally mandated paid maternity leave also does not help. This lack of financial protection may encourage some to accept, pursue, or maintain relationships with men.
Despite the positive changes for women’s legal rights, the inequalities faced by my grandmothers’ generation due to gender and race still influence current inequalities. After all, it was not that long ago when women could face legal discrimination in employment before the Civil Rights Act or federally supported education programs before Title IX. At many banks, women could not even open a bank account without the permission of a husband. Today, reproductive liberty remains a large legal struggle as states like Texas still limit on reproductive care despite the Roe v. Wade decision. In her article “Unpopular Opinion: Being Childfree is an Accomplishment,” author Gabariskufilan points out that “the most effective way to control women is to limit their reproductive decision-making power.” After all, some women may be forced into motherhood before they can attend college, travel, and live for themselves. Furthermore, there are some privileges that are relegated solely to those who are married. Many of these legal factors also act simultaneously as a financial factor as well. In her article, “13 Legal Benefits of Marriage,” Ivy Jacobson addressed benefits such as marital tax deductions, joint tax filing, social security benefits, prenuptial agreements, inheritance benefits, and health insurance benefits.
Because religion still plays an overwhelming role in American society, we cannot ignore the religious expectations of women. While these expectations may be loosening in some communities, they still exist in the form of limiting sex education or reproductive health services, enforcing modesty culture, and respectability culture. Moreover, religion impacts the way some LGBTQ+ folks form relationships. A lesbian or ace may feel pressured into marriage to a man due to family expectations or the first two factors I mentioned. Although same-sex marriage is now legal in the US, not all people have the privilege to safely access it in their community. Also, trans men and nonbinary folks may be forced to present themselves in a feminine way because of religious expectations of gender roles. Since LGBTQ+ folks (especially nonwhite folks) are often at special risk of homelessness and economic struggle, it seems clear that some may choose marriage with someone they don't actually love.
If men really want to stop getting their feelings hurt in relationships with women, they should keep in mind the following question: how can we advocate for our society to be rebuilt to ensure that women (and LGBTQ+ folks) feel secure?
The solution could lie in a holistic approach that acknowledges the financial, legal, and religious factors that push some women into relationships. This approach may include having a universal basic income, fully state-funded public universities, healthcare for all, paid maternity leave, reparations for indigenous and Black American communities, reproductive justice, strict secularism. These are just a few suggestions to ensure that women do not feel pressured to get into relationships for the sake of survival.
Since the current power dynamics still favor men, there is little justification to equate the unhappiness of women in a relationship to the unhappiness of men. Until men advocate for these protections without becoming a Nice Guy™, their unhappiness is largely a privilege.