Where Logic Meets Love

The Shifting See-Saw of Marital Roles

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

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The Shifting See-Saw of Marital Roles | Faith Permeating Life

Sometimes, when you're struggling to make sense of things, someone comes along and hands you a concept that helps you make more sense of your life.

That happened yesterday when Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy posted about the emergence of "see-saw marriages." Anne describes these marriages this way: "These couples are much more open about shifting responsibilities and priorities -- at home and at work -- throughout the different seasons of life."

For example, one spouse's career might take center stage at one point in time while the other stays home with children, and then the stay-at-home spouse starts a business and the other scales back at their own work to help that business grow. Rather than the more rigid gender roles of the past, young couples are now more willing to make adjustments throughout their marriage based on what makes sense at the time.

This is similar to a post I did a year and a half ago called "Unfairness and the Happy Marriage," talking about how Mike and I have alternated "taking care" of each other in different ways throughout our relationship, whether it was me paying his way through grad school or him helping me through mono.

The difference is that we've still kept to fairly stable roles. From the time we met, we knew that we had complementary ambitions: I wanted most of all to focus on my career and be the family breadwinner, and Mike wanted to work for a while and then stay home with kids. And even though our schedules and priorities have shifted over time, we still more or less have maintained those roles -- I've been in the higher-paying jobs and our discussions for the future have revolved primarily around my career with the assumption that Mike would leave his job when we had kids. Our move to Whoville was for Mike's job, but it was a move we both had been wanting to make and it didn't change our long-term trajectory much.

Things have been changing in the last six months, though. Mike is in the first full-time job he truly loves. He's also in a job that requires him to commit to an entire academic year at a time, so when a successful adoption comes through he would not be able to drop everything immediately. I, on the other hand, am struggling to figure out what I want to do with my time. I'm not sure what to do with myself tomorrow, let alone where I want to be in five years.

Our see-saw has tipped.

I've seen articles and such about men who are unemployed or underemployed and depressed because they aren't "providing for" their family, even if their family is getting along fine on their wife's salary. And this always seemed dumb to me -- like, guys, you don't need to "prove your manhood" by making money. It's OK for your wife to make more money than you. I figured their feelings were rooted in cultural gender expectations and that they needed to just let go of the idea that their self-worth as a man is tied to their career or their salary.

Now I see it a bit differently. While cultural gender expectations no doubt play some role, I don't think you have to be a man to get distressed about your role in your family changing. When you've defined yourself as the family breadwinner, as I have, and you suddenly find that definition doesn't make sense anymore, it's hard.

On top of not knowing what job to pursue and potentially re-imagining my whole career, I have to re-imagine my role within my family as well.

I recommend Anne's whole post on this. She shares a great (if heteronormative) quote from a book by Lisa McMinn: "A strong marriage is one in which the husband and wife say to each other, 'I am highly committed to your growth as a person.'"

And that is what I see getting Mike and me through this time of transition. I love seeing him in a job he loves and want him to be able to continue to do this for as long as he wants to. He was very supportive of my decision to quit my job because he wanted me to be happy, and he's made it clear that he wants me to take as much time as I need to figure out what I want to do. We are committed to helping one another grow.

The "see-saw marriage" concept has helped me frame things in a better way. I am not abdicating a role within our family; rather, we are shifting priorities and finding a new balance for the time being. And undoubtedly we will have to shift again in the future. Framing it not in terms of my identity and my career but our marriage and our life better shows how I fit into the larger picture.

What do you think of this see-saw marriage concept? Have you ever had to rethink your role or identity?


  1. I honestly believe that this is how you make it work over the long haul.... By being adaptable about whatever comes up, by supporting each other, and evolving together.

    With us it's a little different because my partner and I aren't legally married and are financially independent of each other. We do help each other out when needed and I'm certain over time we're likely going become more financially intertwined but right now things are pretty separate.

    I lost my job when the company I was working for folded at the beginning of January (though, I was planning to quit anyway) and that's really caused me to re-evaluate my role at home, in my community, and career wise.

    In some ways, it's been tough. I've been thrust into a housewife-like position, and I don't like it at ALL. Trying to keep the apartment tidy and clean has been a headache and a half, it's something that doesn't come naturally to me at all.

    In other ways, it's been freeing. I've been given the opportunity to take some time and focus on building myself up. I've been able to take some writing courses that have really helped me identify what I want out of life. I've had the opportunity to dive more deeply into a yoga practice that's been extremely beneficial both mentally and physically... and since I have this extra time, I'm able to volunteer at my yoga studio and help build that community (they just moved into a new, larger, more community oriented space) while earning unlimited yoga classes... Definitely something I would not have been able to do if I was working full time.

    I'm working on starting my own business doing things like copy writing, social media management and web consulting.... which is a shift in focus from doing web development.

    Meanwhile, my partner has seen some big changes in his work life recently... He does live sound. He's been picking up a lot of work at a new venue, which pays a lot better than his house gig... but he still needs to maintain some semblance of a schedule at his house gig currently... and that's been a little tough because it's meant working 6 days a week, this won't last forever... but it's something we have to live with for now.

    It's been tough because I don't get to see him much, and when he is home... He's exhausted. He's around people all day and just wants to go come home, watch the Daily Show and go to bed.... and since I'm home all the time, it's really difficult to not jump all over him like an excited puppy.

    It's not been easy, but we're figuring it out as we go along... I think the key to it is to just keep communicating what you want and what your goals are and how you're feeling about things to each other... and eventually you figure it out.

    1. It sounds like you and I are in a similar position currently of discovering the pros and cons of being unemployed. That's great that you have found the extra time for yoga to be beneficial. I've restarted my exercise regimen this week and can already tell the positive effect it's having on my energy and mood.

      What you describe about your partner reminds me of when Mike was a restaurant manager, except that rather than wanting to come home and be alone he wanted to come home and complain for an hour about how much he hated his job and then go to bed. I agree that communication is key -- talking about what you need from each other and figuring out how to make adjustments so that each person at least feels heard and cared about. Best of luck as you go through this transition time in your life and relationship.

  2. This is similar to a post I did a year and a half ago called "Unfairness and the Happy Marriage," talking about how Mike and I have alternated "taking care" of each other in different ways throughout our relationship, whether it was me paying his way through grad school or him helping me through mono. packing materials


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