It’s nothing you can really quite pinpoint.
There have been some small changes since the wedding. That slinky black dress that helped you catch your husband gets pushed to the back of the closet. The novel you started to write has to wait. And the man you once called by his given name becomes “Honey,” “Sweetheart” or “Baby.”
You have a great husband, a nice home and a life that you always hoped for. But underneath there’s this ache. You don’t feel, well, quite like yourself.
Call it marriage shock, says author Dalma Heyn, who has recently written a book by that title describing what she calls the transformation of women into wives.
“Marriage is an institution with very clear rules and behavior for men and women, but mostly women,” says Heyn. “Women just sense that in order to have a good marriage, they have to behave like good wives.”
Marriage, she says, was once the social and economic structure that allowed women literally to survive. Over the generations, the institution has changed. Marriage is no longer a partnership where couples once worked the farm or a place where men provided financially while women tended the home fires.
Now women work and men can stay home and both nurture children, she says. But what hasn’t kept pace with the role changes is society’s image of what makes a wife. Deeply embedded in women’s psyches - and in the men whom they marry - is an image of the good wife, says Heyn.
Good wives are selfless. Good wives are cheerful. Good wives cook, clean and decorate. Good wives defer to their men. Good wives aren’t sexy in public. And as if that weren’t depressing enough, good wives come with thin thighs and perfect haircuts, she says.
To meet the expectations, many new wives find themselves making little changes that add up over time. It may take several years for the new wife to realize she’s lost her sense of identity.
“No one tells women that no, you may not have a life,” says Heyn about marriage. “But the women feel so conflicted. Even as we know it’s nonsense that we should be there with a plate of cookies and ready to make love to our husbands, on some level we feel guilty if that isn’t what we are providing because historically, that was what was expected.”
Frustration at trying to be the perfect wife has taken its toll on American women, Heyn says, pointing to recent depression and divorce statistics.
Married women’s depression rates are triple that of their single female counterparts and five times higher than married men, according to Heyn.
Nearly 65 percent of all new marriages end in divorce and usually within the first seven years, according to Heyn. And while in 1970, most divorces were initiated by men, now up to 75 percent of all divorces are caused by women leaving the marriage.
“They are leaving because they have enough money to do so,” Heyn says. “They are saying, ‘There is something here that I can’t deal with.’ And it’s probably not the man. It’s probably the institution.”
Men are sometimes bewildered by the changes in their wives as well, Heyn says.
“Men will often say, ‘Where did my Debbie go? I married this adorable, vital, sexy woman and suddenly I got my mother,”’ Heyn says.
Recently, Heyn says, the role of wives has been questioned by the American public. At the core of recent debates about working mothers, Heyn says, is the role of wives. The backlash has been swift. Movies, books and even state laws are sending strong messages advocating a return to the traditional model, she says.
“No one says, ‘How will we make marriage better for women?’ We say instead, ‘Let’s get stricter divorce laws. Let’s get them out of the work force so they have to stay home,”’ she says. “We are still shouting at women to go back to traditional marriages, and it’s not going to happen.”
It’s not that Heyn doesn’t believe in marriage. She says she does and is happily married herself. What she wants, she says, is to bring marriage and its image of wives up-to-date.
“I’m saying why don’t couples get together and say marriage hasn’t been traditionally for women, but if we want them to stay, how can we make it more nurturing,” she says.
“We have to fight these ancient roles that are sort of deep in our bones.”
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