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COMMITMENTS : In a Relationship, Being Equal Has No Peer

July 11, 1994|MARY JO KOCHAKIAN | THE HARTFORD COURANT

Think of marriage as a deep, irreplaceable friendship.

It is truly intimate because so much, from child rearing to managing money, is shared equally. Partners communicate well and treat each other respectfully.

"People think about it as wonderland--that it's a concept but not a reality," said sociologist Pepper Schwartz. Sad, said Schwartz, who studied couples who have that kind of relationship for her new book, "Peer Marriage" (Free Press).

"It's extremely possible, and extremely important, both as aspiration and achievement. But if they don't believe they can do it, of course they're not going to do it."

Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, began her study of "peer marriages" from a large study of American couples she collaborated on more than 10 years ago. She went back to examine the relationships of egalitarian couples and to study others. She also drew upon her own experience.

Most marriages fit into Schwartz's categories of traditional or "near-peer," the latter being couples who say they want an egalitarian relationship, yet are stuck in gender-role stereotypes.

"Near-peers say, 'Yeah, we believe in equality, and if we could do it, we would,' " Schwartz said in an interview. "If you ask them, 'Well then, why don't you do it?' the two things they always say are the things traditional people believe in.

"The first is that they are investing in his career. . . . They want to maximize income, or don't want to endanger it," and so they put the man's job first.

Also, "they both believe in the female ownership of children"--the mother is presumed to be the primary parent.

Couples who settle for inequality are far more likely to be miserable--and to divorce, Schwartz said.

"In a lot of traditional and near-peer marriages, I see women who are frustrated with less male involvement. There are times when they're overwhelmed, there are times when they really need him, want him to care, and he doesn't. He's uninvolved or unavailable. Sooner or later, that's more than a small thing."

Many men, she said, "are bored with their wives, bored with their marriages. . . . What happens in a lot of marriages is there's nothing to talk about except their general regard for each other and their general desire to be in a family together. But there's no content. They're not doing enough together."

Peer couples spend time together on mutual interests, which cements the relationship further. They find the time to be together that other couples don't--partly by refusing to sacrifice their relationship by always putting kids first.

To create peer marriages, Schwartz found that couples:

* Carefully plot their work lives. They consider how a job will fit with their personal lives. Jobs that require endless hours at the office, or lengthy or unpredictable absences, are out. Money can't be everything.

"Most important is to be honest about what the job means and what is necessary for personal fulfillment," Schwartz writes. "Then negotiation is possible."

* Manage finances so that neither partner feels dependent on the other. Larger resources are pooled, but no one has to get permission for personal spending.

* Have mutual goals--such as buying a house or early retirement--that individuals contribute to but both profit from.

* Make clear by their actions that they are equal parents.

* Treat each other respectfully. They find that "treating the spouse no worse than a best friend has a continually civilizing effect," Schwartz writes.

* Figure out a system to divide household chores and responsibilities.

* Dedicate energy to keeping their erotic life interesting.

Couples who create a marriage of equals often do so because they hated earlier relationships, Schwartz said. It isn't necessary to go through that to figure out how to have a satisfying marriage, she pointed out: "You don't have to savage the first 10 years."

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