You’re Not Making Marriage Look Any Better

New York magazine interviewed “economist Joseph Stieglitz” and “his wife Anya Schiffrin” about why marriage rates are so low.

Anya makes an excellent point about the practical implications of marriage for women:

A.S.: Obviously for women getting married also means a hell of a lot more work.

J.S.: Is that right?

A.S.: [Laughs.] Well, of course, we divide things up 50-50.

So, okay, she’s probably used to being “his wife” – I imagine that’s part for the course if you’re married to a Nobel Laureate. But it’s great to hear that, despite his fame, they’ve developed an equal partnership.

Oh, wait.

A.S.: I’d love to comment on that study, but everything I know about it comes from you. One thing that definitely happens in a marriage, speaking of division of labor, is a division of information. When I was a journalist, I had to pay attention to where the dollar was and what the stock market was doing. Now I can always ask you. And there are a million things you don’t have to pay attention to because you can ask me. All domestic matters, for example.

J.S.: I would say more broadly that it’s everything except economics. Movies, plays, culture …

A.S.: Who’s who, and why do we recognize that person. It really is everything but economics. [Laughs.] It’s dynamic comparative advantage.

So, he specializes in being an award-winning economist, and she specializes in household affairs and their social life? All of a sudden it’s looking a lot less like 50-50 to me – particularly since only one of those roles is lucrative and high-status. (And asking “Is that right?” about whether marriage means more work for women? That’s just adding insult to injury.)

What’s going on here? Was Schiffrin making a bitter joke about the division of labor in their marriage? Are they exaggerating the degree to which he abdicates from everything but economic excellence? How can they possibly hold both those points of view?

I’m guessing this is an example of value conflict. Steiglitz and Schiffrin likely value fairness, equality, mutuality, and all those other good things – and no one wants to admit that their life violates the values they hold dear. This is what Maushart calls “pseudomutuality” – a facade of equality covering an unequal and highly gendered division of labor. What’s fascinating is that pseudomutual couples don’t just fool other people; they often genuinely fool themselves into believing their marriage is fair, because they can’t bear the alternative. No one wants to think of themselves as an exploiter, or to admit that they allow themselves to be exploited and abused.

This not-even-very-close reading shows the ugly reality of many marriages, which fall far short of our collective ideals and values. Wondering why marriage rates are at an all-time low? I think that’s a pretty good answer.

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