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‘Gender inequities are important’: why couples fall out of love

‘Gender inequities are important’: why couples fall out of love
The desire to get married is a basic and primal instinct in women,” observed the late, great Nora Ephron. “It’s followed by another basic and primal instinct: the desire to be single again.” Relationship wisdom is full of such emphatic generalisations but, according to that eternally reliable media source “a recent study”, women do appear to fall in and out of love more extremely than men.

A behavioural economist, Saurabh Bhargava of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has published a new study in Psychological Science, the leading journal in the field, which has a number of striking findings. The first is that women reported having feelings of love almost twice as frequently as men. The second is that, over the course of a long relationship, women on average experience a much steeper decline in these feeling compared to their male partners.
Whereas men showed a 9.2% reduction in their romantic feelings towards their spouses, women underwent a 55.2% drop. A similar effect is seen in the realm of passion, where marriage leads to a 55.3% decrease in women’s desire for their partners, and a much smaller deterioration in ardour from men.

Camilla Nicholls, a couples counsellor, says the findings don’t match her professional experience: “The significant gender gap suggested by the research doesn’t really register in the consulting room.”

Yet, although there’s something a little queasy about applying statistical analysis to the notoriously elusive concept of love, these figures may at least give pause to rethink some of the familiar tropes and cliches concerning marriage.

Popular culture tends to focus on the image of the middle-aged man seeking the ego gratification of a younger woman as a fundamental cause of marital breakdown. And while there’s no denying that particular phenomenon, it might be that the less conspicuous issue of gradual female disappointment with men is a more common cause of marriages coming to an end.

Joanna Harrison is a former divorce lawyer who, having decided she wanted to help relationships before they broke down, became a couples counsellor. She is also the author of Five Arguments All Couples (Need to) Have, which bears the imperishable subtitle: and why the washing up matters.
“It’s women who more often petition for divorce,” she notes, adding that there is no means of assessing exactly what that means – other than that it shows a marked lack of passivity.

And, although there are all manner of exceptions, there are nonetheless some broad trends she has witnessed.

Men more often are concerned about a sexual relationship and wanting less frustration from their partner

Joanna Harrison, former divorce lawyer
“Women more often express frustration about communication and the division of labour,” she says. “And men more often are concerned about a sexual relationship and wanting less frustration from their partner.”

Intriguingly, as the subtitle to her book hints at, while it may appear that (many) men and women want different things, there is in fact a causal link between these disparate desires. Harrison points to “a brilliant” study, published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour, entitled: “Gender Inequities in Household Labour Predict Lower Sexual Desire in Women Partnered with Men.” The study, by Harris, Gormezano and Anders, claims to “show that gender inequities are important, though understudied, contributors to low desire in women partnered with men”. As you’d expect, it’s couched in forbiddingly academic language but one takeaway, put in crude terms, is that if men want to see more action in the bedroom, they need to think about being more active in the kitchen.

Although gender roles no longer conform to rigid stereotypes, it’s fair to say that a majority of men are not as domestically active as they would like to believe. Data in the Bhargava study shows men have a tendency to indulge in post-work relaxation and “napping”, which, moving tentatively into the domain of speculation, may not prove popular with many women.

As human beings are blessed and cursed with a relative, rather than absolute, perspective, it matters much less that technical innovation has radically reduced the amount of time we spend on domestic chores than how that reduced time is distributed between a couple.There are few things more emotionally corrosive than the slow accumulation of resentment at the routine avoidance of minor tasks.

There’s also often an inherited frustration into the bargain, with many women often keenly conscious of not wanting to fall into the default domestic position they saw their mothers occupy. “We’ve all got the models of our parents inside us,” says Harrison.

Beyond housework, however, the real crucible of marital inequality is childcare. It’s not just the work that nurturing and bringing up children involves, and how often it’s overlooked or underestimated, but also how children reshape their parents’ relationship with each other.

Bhargava found that men, unlike women, are much less likely to feel love towards their partners when they are in the company of their children. Harrison says that, in her experience, the complaint that a spouse has become more distant and child-focused since becoming a parent is much less frequently voiced by women than by men.

Micro-grievances and glacial grudges might be tough as they’re the hidden and unsexy story of marriage

Another compounding factor is elderly parents – a responsibility which women often find landing at their feet. But Harrison has some constructive advice on the matter of love on the slide.

“Where loving feelings are on the decline in one or both people, it’s important to try and understand what that’s about with each other rather than let resentments build up, because that is what really wears down long-term relationships.”

She says that such understanding is a two-way process in which both partners need to feel able to describe their feelings in a way that doesn’t make the other defensive, but also to be able to listen to experiences that may be difficult to hear. As that can be challenging at the best of times, let alone when a marriage shifts into crisis, “a couple therapist”, she adds, “could be useful.”

Another reason why talking about micro-grievances and glacial grudges might be tough is that they’re in many respects the hidden and unsexy story of marriage, the uncelebrated one that isn’t part of public culture. As incremental loss of love is seldom the stuff of high drama, fiction tends to trade instead in impassioned affairs and flaming rows. Films are good at ardent beginnings and toxic break-ups, but the mundane process of developing a thousand tiny resentments usually goes undocumented.

So while we may see the progressive embitterment of Kay Corleone in The Godfather, it’s because her husband kills people, not because he neglects the washing up.

One notable exception is Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, which spans two decades in the lives of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), from meeting as strangers on a European train to a showdown, as middle-aged parents, on a Greek holiday. There’s a moving scene in the final film, Before Midnight, in which, after an argument, Celine says: “You know what’s going on here? It’s simple: I don’t think I love you any more.”

The reason it feels authentic and quietly devastating is because there is a sense of this declaration emerging from a history of compromise and thwarted dreams – the kind most marriages encounter – rather than from a single unforgivable incident.

But it’s not all bad news on the marriage front. A loving equality of a kind is often reached. If women are more likely to begin with a romantic view of a relationship’s potential, the experience of living with their male partners seems to be a highly effective means of lowering their expectations.

If that often means falling somewhat out of love, Bhargava’s study appears to suggest that it can result in a form of romantic parity with men, who were perhaps not feeling quite so dreamy in the first place.

In the end, love may be another word for acceptance.

Story by Andrew Anthony: The Guardian