When couples come into my therapist’s office today, I see husbands and wives who have choices that their grandparents could have scarcely imagined. Among them are dual income couples, gay and lesbian parents, and stay-at-home dads. Yet many of these couples have a hard time navigating their new options. They’re torn between the choices available to families today and the gender identities that still linger from the families of yesterday.
For example, a woman who earns more than her husband may feel proud about her success, yet resentful if she prefers to stay at home like her mother. A husband who stays at home may find meaning and happiness in his role as a full-time dad, yet shamed by a culture where career and breadwinning are still central to a man’s identity.
Even so-called “traditional” arrangements have a different meaning in today’s context. Some working fathers feel envious that their wives get to stay home, or feel resentful that their wives don’t contribute to the family’s income, as do some of their friends’ spouses. Career women who choose to stay home may get joy and satisfaction from being mothers but feel stifled by the lack of intellectual stimulation that this role provides.
I have found that couples who fare the best are those who frequently express appreciation and gratitude for their spouse’s contributions, express their complaints in direct and healthy ways, strive to keep the channels of communication open, and share housework. I encourage couples to develop empathy toward the other for the inevitable mistakes that get made in marriages with few role models to emulate. Finally, I recommend that couples with children strive to prioritize their marriage and understand that it takes a daily investment of time, effort, and love—along with regular date nights, when spouses get time alone. The happiest marriages seem to be those where the parents recognize that children aren’t the only ones in the family who need quality time and support.