As a newlywed, over 12 years ago, my aunt and uncle shared their best advice in a serious tone: “The foundation of a marriage is a hired housecleaner.”
I didn’t identify with this idea and it seemed outdated to me, besides already feeling financially incapable of affording the “foundation of my marriage.”
How come my aunt and uncle have been able to have a long and happy marriage, when they married as uneducated teenagers?
Why have they survived their struggles, kept their romance alive, built successful careers and still look 20 years younger?
Did I really need a house cleaning service saved on speed dial?
In the first two years of my marriage all I cared to know was how to make this last. How was I going to avoid ending up in an empty marriage?
Most importantly, how was I going to keep my independence and feel a sense of belonging?
In other words, I wanted intimacy and autonomy.
I wondered if by hiring out the housework my clever aunt had brilliantly neutralized that which was intended to keep her busy and at home. They hired someone to help even when they had their first child and lived in a small one-bedroom apartment.
Clearly in my family circle there was supposed adherence to traditional gender norms but some females had managed to short circuit these. Nonetheless, my immediate family worried that my husband would soon get tired of me because I didn’t cook.
That caused me to fear the “inevitable” and I would express my fears to my husband. He responded, “I didn’t marry you for your cooking skills. I love you for who you are.”
Oh gosh, who am I? A woman that should attend to her husband?
He responded: “I don’t want you serving me. We’re a team. I married someone as my equal and there’s no good reason we shouldn’t share the house duties and both pursue our interests.”
It took many years to make sense of all this. I believed in an equal marriage, but everywhere I turned I was reminded of my duty to make my marriage succeed.
Then I uncovered how and why marital happiness and intimacy depended on a perfect balance of autonomy and connection.
My husband and I fell into this job of being Relationship Educators. I say, “fell into,” but I mean we attended a variety of relationship classes and eventually we were asked to get involved in helping others. Might’ve been due to our case that involved high levels of conflict early in our relationship, however, instead of separation we chose education. Our story became a testament of relationship education.
Relationship science happens to be our shared obsession, like the healthy couples that hit the gym together every Saturday. If only we could look fit after reading and dissecting research.
According to the Self-Determination Theory, to fulfill our basic human needs we need to have autonomy (have the freedom of choice and control), competence (feel confident and capable), and relatedness (feel connected to others). This can be applied to your life in general and to parts of your life, like intimacy.
Intimacy is much more satisfying when all three components are present: feeling in control, feeling competent, and feeling connection.
My aunt may have said a housecleaner is the foundation, but she may have been exercising her freedom of choice. This is the choice she wanted to satisfy her basic needs.
Typically, those who follow traditional gender roles accept men to take initiative and women to be submissive. “He” makes the move in bed and “she” does what he wants.
The problem is that when women are passive and give up their autonomy (having a choice to get what they want) they feel less satisfied in bed and their arousal is diminished.
Lack of choice and initiative robs women of pleasure.
Men aren’t too far behind when it comes to less satisfaction in the relationship; they want to feel just as desired by their partner as women do.
It’s mutually gratifying when both partners exercise initiative and choice.
What I’ve uncovered to be the true foundation of a marriage is intimacy.
But intimacy doesn’t just mean your time in the bedroom. Physical intimacy is a form of connection, but if we are doing it for the wrong reasons, called avoidant reasons (preventing your spouse from getting angry, trying to keep your partner’s interest) the satisfaction is less intense and the desire is short-lived in comparison to approach reasons (to feel closer, enrich intimacy, and show affection).
Physical intimacy goes hand in hand with relationship satisfaction.
You’re more likely to have great sex if you’re satisfied in your relationship.
Studies suggest that relationship satisfaction is more abundant in relationships where at least one partner has a good balance between masculine and feminine qualities. The technical term is androgynous.
Masculine qualities, aka Instrumental Traits, are said to be assertive, self-reliant, ambitious and decisive.
Feminine qualities, aka Expressive Traits, are said to be warm, sensitive, kind, and emotionally expressive.
These traits are simply two distinct sets of skills that make you a well rounded human being.
How can you have high emotional intelligence when you lack expressive traits?
(Emotionally intelligent couples are said to be among the happiest and long lasting.)
How can you take control of your happiness when you lack instrumental traits?
Happiness is said to be something you actively and relentlessly pursue, because it does not fall from the sky and it’s not like buying a car. It’s more like brushing your teeth, you do it regularly and some people seem to be really good at it and others not so much. Yet it has less to do with skill, so it’s more about effort.
Traditional women, possessing only expressive traits, aren’t assertive enough; maybe it’s hard for them to stand up for themselves.
Traditional men, possessing only instrumental traits, are considered stoic, lacking feelings, and too analytical; maybe they aren’t comfortable talking about feelings or expressing affection.
Research says that at the end of the day, regardless of our gender, we want our partners to provide warmth and affection.
As Dr. Gottman, lead researcher in the field, once said, “Longing for companionship knows no gender.”
At least none of us intend to get married to then divorce a few years later. If we could avoid heartache we would.
It’s no wonder, that those married to someone with low expressive traits (who don’t readily show warmth and compassion or feel comfortable showing affection) are chronically less happy than those who are married to someone that is more sensitive and understanding.
We can see why traditional men unintentionally deprive themselves of rewarding connection.
Under what circumstances would we want to pour our heart out with an unresponsive mate?
We invest and dedicate so much of ourselves to our relationships, that it’s no surprise we’d feel disheartened if we didn’t receive the same investment in return.
You’re more likely to have lasting marital happiness if you don’t stick rigidly to traditional gender roles.
Looking back at my aunt’s situation I realize that by hiring people to clean and cook, she was free to open an accounting firm with my uncle. She was creative about the arrangements she made (remember they didn’t have lots of money at first) and ultimately short-circuited the norms around traditional gender roles.
She’s a very ingenious feminist, but she would never dare to admit it; none of my aunts would — even though they all do a pretty good job of balancing leadership and compassion.
From an outsider’s view, they may seem like submissive women swimming in the direction of the current consistent with the ideals of Mexico, but that’s just what they want you to think.
A feminist is someone who believes in the equality of the sexes.
Freedom of choice, feeling competent and connected, these are the basic needs that feminist individuals understand belong to both sexes.
What’s astonishing is the research showing the major differences between feminist couples and traditional couples when it comes to romance:
· Women are happier when married to feminist men
· Feminist couples enjoy better sex
· Men partnered to feminist women enjoy more stable relationships
Feminist women are comfortable in their sexuality and feminist men are comfortable talking about their feelings.
In sum, romance and intimacy are not just compatible with feminism, but may actually underpin the basis of the most rewarding relationships between human beings in the entire universe.
Okay, that may be an overstatement. But you get the point.
In my case, I haven’t yet needed a housecleaner. But I do need hugs, to have my career, and homemade chocolate strawberries on the side.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by exceptional women in my family while growing up, both in Mexico and the United States.
Although it might not have been easy for them, I witnessed their perseverance and strong initiative, never dismissing their gentleness and compassionate side.
Originally published at medium.com