New agenda for workplace activism: Keep marriages together

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The topic of should women work or should they stay home is a baby boomer fetish topic, with Leslie Bennetts being the current poster girl.

Joan Walsh, writing at Salon, points out that we are generally sick of baby boomer women telling younger women what to do and what not to do. But we are also generally disgusted with the baby boomer infatuation with the opt-out topic since only 4% of women in this country are so lucky to have both a hotshot career and a husband making enough money to be the sole breadwinner. For the other 96% of us, opting out is about gutwrenching financial decisions, not feminist platitudes.

Nevertheless, women like Bennetts approach the issue of staying home with kids as if many women are considering this option. She says that women who quit working and stay home with their kids will decrease their earning power and put themselves at risk if there’s a divorce.

First of all, we know that baby boomers divorced at a higher rate than any group in history, and today the risk of divorce is only 20% for college-educated women, and the trend is for divorce rates to continue declining. Yet Bennetts writes about divorce among women who can afford to stay home as if it’s an epidemic.

Second, when a woman stays at home the marriage is more likely to stay intact, and when a marriage stays intact, the kids do better. So you can argue forever that a stay-at-home parent (male or female) loses something by not going to work, but clearly their family gains something, so if women want to stop working for a while, fine. Why get all up in arms about it?

The problem is when there is a divorce. Divorce doesn’t just hurt stay-at-home parents, who have to go back to work after being out of the workforce for years. It hurts breadwinners, who, because of child support issues are very limited in the career moves they can make. But most of all, divorce hurts kids.

Divorced parents routinely walk around saying that their kids are doing fine and that their kids are better off because the parents are happier. However there is little evidence to generally support either of these claims. Both are very psychological and complicated and parents are hardly good judges of their own case since they have already made the decision and want to feel it was not selfish and terrible to do to their kids.

Here is what there is research to support: Even amicable divorces do permanent damage to kids, yet the media practically ignored this evidence when it came out. Kids with divorced parents do worse in school, and this research is independent of socioeconomic status, and it gets worse if a parent remarries. Also, if you get divorced, you make your child almost 50% more likely to get a divorce.

So here’s what we know for sure, today: Women who work have a higher chance of having a divorce, and women who stay at home are very vulnerable in the case of a divorce.

Here’s what we should do with this information: Start talking about how to keep a marriage together. Making marriage last is a workplace issue because work factors play such a very large role in the equation. Work needs to help us to keep marriages together instead of hurt it. And advice about work needs to focus on improving marriage rather than preparing for divorce.

This issue hits close to home to me because my marriage is under stress right now. We have two young kids, both of whom have special needs. Additionally, I’m at a time in my career when I have a lot of work, while my husband is lost in his career.

Sometimes I think of getting a divorce, and I tell myself I’m not doing it. I tell myself that no one is in love every second of their marriage. I tell myself that this is a really bad time in our marriage and I will have to work really hard to make it better.

And then I think, how will I find time to do that? I actually have very little guilt about how I have dealt with my kids. I spend tons of time with them because my work is flexible. But I have not focused on my marriage. I have focused on my kids and my career and myself.

But what about my marriage? It’s a big part of the equation. I hear a lot of women saying they have a problem keeping their marriage together. And in general the group that shouts the loudest about advice for keeping a marriage intact is the Christian right. (Check out the fourth result on the Google list from the search “how to keep your marriage together“.)

So this is my call for a shift in discussion about women and work. Both men and women need to figure out how talk about how to make better marriages. We need to take all our energy we spend talking about the risks of stay-at-home parenting, and the risks of dual-career families, and put that thinking power toward what makes a marriage strong.

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  1. Dan Schawbel
    Dan Schawbel says:

    Good post…I read some research the other day that states that a large percentage of women are now in the corporate world and have obtained some top notch positions.

    Glad to hear this

  2. Leets
    Leets says:

    There was also an op-ed about this topic in the Times recently, by Linda Hirshmann.

    I am currently about 3 months pregnant and I am already kept awake at night wondering what in the hell I am going to do once I give birth. I can take 6 months (UNPAID) leave at my job, but then what? Hand over my newborn to a stranger? I don’t think I’ll be able to do it. I want to be at home with my child for at least a year or two, so my husband is already trying to find a second job so we can afford our mortgage.

    I think before we worry about the benefits of opting out versus going back to work, we need to have a serious conversation in this country about affordable daycare and REAL, PAID leave for BOTH parents. Where is this conservative Right on this issue? What could be more about “family values” than this? I really feel this is one area in which feminism seriously let us down.

  3. sarah
    sarah says:

    Wow, way to judge there. In your personal experiences I feel for you. Nonetheless,

    “Divorced parents routinely walk around saying that their kids are doing fine and that their kids are better off because the parents are happier. However there is little evidence to generally support either of these claims.”

    is a sweeping generalisation. Have you actually looked for the evidence, rather than announcing that it’s all anecdotal on the part of parents? It isn’t, and the evidence is there if you look for it.

    This post is purely self interest, showing only the evidence that you want to see to keep you where you are desperately trying to be. Good luck in your marriage, but don’t present how you wish it was as fact.

    * * * * * * *

    Hi, Sarah. Thank you for your comment. I spent a lot of time looking around at what research is out there about how kids fare after divorce, and in this post, I linked to the stuff that I thought was best. But I am really eager to read more, especially if it is contrary to what I found. Can you point us to research that says that divorce does not affect kids negatively?


  4. Jacqui
    Jacqui says:

    “Second, when a woman stays at home the marriage is more likely to stay in tact, and when a marriage stays in tact, the kids do better.”

    Are you sure? I know you’ve written other posts on the topic, but I think this is a pretty personal statement. The entire topic is personal and can’t be generalized at all, for an entire generation, and certainly not for an entire gender.

    If I was staying home to raise children, but I was unhappy about it, I think my marriage would be under a lot more pressure than if I was working.

    I agree 100% with your assessment about younger generations being tired of hearing about what we “have to” or “should” do, and even about the decision being financial and completely unrelated to feminism. However, the generalizations about such personal topics as happiness in a marriage and related career satisfaction might be a little off-mark.

    * * * * * * *

    Hi, Jacqui. To be clear, I am not a stay-at-home mom. And my husband tried to stay at home, and hated it. So when I say that families are more stable with a stay-at-home parent, no one is more unhappy to hear this than I am. Because it’s not going to happen in my house, for a number of reasons.

    But I think we all need to honestly accept that there is a vast body of research that shows the bare-bones statistics. Marriages with a stay-at-home spouse do better. I linked to the statistics. I think we’d do better to face the statistics, and try to improve them than to argue that they are not true.


  5. Adrian
    Adrian says:

    This post makes some very sweeping generalizations that don’t necessarily apply to real-world situations. There are statements about happiness levels of children that do not consider both sides of the evidence – evidence which is also largely anecdotal. There are also references to statistics that don’t truly apply to the focus of the article.

    Which is better, an in tact [*sic*] bad marriage, or the dissolution of a bad marriage? Perhaps some marriages should never have happened in the first place.

    What sort of lesson are children learning? Is a daughter learning it is better to stay in a bad marriage than to get out and seek her happiness, her identity? Are children being taught to compound the mistake of a very poor relationship choice by sticking to that choice?

    By all means, we should work hard to make good marriage work. But a marriage that started broken probably can’t ever be fixed.

    That is what my mother used to call “throwing good money after bad” – a bad investment.

  6. sarah
    sarah says:

    I am looking for one particularly interesting article I read on this topic, referring to relevant research – I’ll let you know when I’ve finished wading through the newspaper’s particularly slow and archaic search mechanism (that keeps timing out).

    Still, the bare bones as you put it, are not as simple as you present. Marriages with a stay at home parent are more likely to stay intact because only one parent can afford to leave the marriage. Children of marriages that could have broken yet don't may well also stay in their marriages because they haven't learnt that they can leave a bad situation. One has to consider quality of life measures too. That is what the article I'm looking for referred to. It is easy to dismiss such measures as anecdotal, but there is actually a solid scientific body of work that has gone into making them reproducible and reliable. Oh, and that body of research asked the children, not the parents.

  7. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    In a marraige with two careers and kids, it’s easy to focus on the careers and the kids and neglect the marriage — the relationship between partners in all its facets. I think this is the problem in two-career marriages with children.

    Just as we make quality time and quantity time with our kids, it’s important to make quality time for the marriage. But this is tough, especially with flex hours careers that allow for children-time (which means working when the child/children are sleeping).

    My husband and I struggle to find couple time. But I agree it needs to be a priority. When we’ve had a regular weekly “date night” it has helped. But it’s so easy for that to fall apart — or to end up at Ikea instead of enjoying each other’s company at a nice restaurant.

    Just as there is so much talk about spending quality time with your kids, there needs to be more public discussion and education about quality marriage/relationship time. (And not discussing finances, but just enjoying each other’s company and discussing non-family subjects of mutual interest).

  8. Jacqui
    Jacqui says:


    Thanks for responding. I appreciate your taking the time to interact personally with your readers.

    I do, however, want to argue that the stats may not be true. For the same reasons that generalizations on personal topics are dangerous, having a “scientific” study to determine a level of happiness and satisfaction in a large group of people is almost impossible.

    And even if you disagree with that statement, we have to consider who is conducting these studies. My generation is not yet old enough to have established itself in the field of research, so the boomers are still in charge of collecting data. I’m not suggesting that they’re intentionally skewing data, but on something as objective as happiness, they’ll be viewing the results through a generational curtain. I, or someone else from my generation, may look at the exact same data and draw completely different conclusions, for the simple reason that our values and frames of reference across generations vary a great deal.

    In addition, the vast majority of millennials are not yet married or haven’t been married long, but those of us who are are already showing a very different approach to the institution (hence the much lower divorce rate).
    For this reason, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to base generalizations on how we’ll handle the marriage vs. career dilemma, using previous generations as a baseline.

    I’m just as fascinated to see the generational difference and the changes that will result as millennials increasingly enter the adult world.
    However, we’re still a very young generation, and we’re still in the watch-and-see phase of studying. I think its way too soon to be drawing conclusions on how we’ll react in a world to which we’ve just barely been introduced.

  9. Jinx
    Jinx says:

    I know your post is about society’s obsession with things failing… unfortunately I can’t get past the fact that you called your marriage and, more importantly, your husband to the carpet so blatantly and so publicly.

    I must be so easy for people who live a semi-public life to shunt their problems to their own little public forum so they can have the mob mentality tacitly support the decisions that they were hinting at. You talk about keeping a marriage together, but it seems like you really don’t believe it. If you did, you would find the time.

    No one sits in their old-folks home and remembers that one meeting where Bob agreed with their latest proposal. They remember love and friendship and family and sunsets on the beach and heartbreak and the regret of not saving their marriage before it’s too late.

    Careers come and go, but soulmates don’t.

  10. Scot Herrick
    Scot Herrick says:

    Regardless of choice of statistics, I think the call to change the discussions around work to one of how to have marriages succeed is an important one.

    It is incredibly easy in this always on world to neglect the very thing that allows one to succeed in many aspects of life — one’s marriage.

    It’s like Michael Jordan focusing on all of the endorsements and forgetting about playing basketball.

    A construct that has been useful to me is to define the marriage relationship as a separate entity from the husband, wife, and children. For some reason, to me, to have a “relationship” entity means that the relationship requires care, feeding, restoration, and fun along with the husband, wife, and children.

    It allows two people to talk about the relationship — rather than talking about something bad about each other. It elevates the marriage into something important and something that can be discussed outside of the two people involved looking into the relationship.

    Regardless of the statistics, the choices made have to be comfortable to the critical two people — the two people married. And sometimes, living in ambiguity is the right choice even though it doesn’t feel right. But having a relationship entity allows married people to talk about their marriage in a less threatening manner.

    This from a divorced person. And a baby boomer.

    Keep talking, Penelope. You make us all think. And that’s a good thing.

  11. daniel
    daniel says:

    hi, Penelope, how are you doing?

    I saw this one in the feed & thought “I bet that’s got a lot of comments”!

    There are a lot of mentions of “generalizations” in the comments & I think that’s a great place to pick up: Generalizations aren’t bad things to face when you need to make a decision. They give you a guide as to what ‘generally’ happens & allow you to ask yourself:

    1. Do I want that to happen to me?
    2. Does my situation make that likely to occur?
    3. What can I do to avoid that happening?

    Aside from that, the only other thing I wanted to mention was “women” & “men”. I think it’s rarely constructive to say things like “women should stay at home”, “modern women have a tough time juggling careers & kids”. It’s better to just start from the angle that the genders /are/ equal (whether that’s true or not), as:

    1. That loses half the baggage of the debate
    2. It moves it to a more rational argument
    3. It moves the whole gender thing forward another step

    Thanks – as ever – for a thought-provoking post!


    * * * * * *

    Hi, Daniel. Thaks for this great comment. I like the reminders you give about writing for everyone and not just women. So often, the world is not male/female but conscious/unconscious, and I need to remember to write that way.


  12. Grace Briones
    Grace Briones says:


    I’ve been told that in marriage there are good YEARS and bad YEARS. I’ve been reading your blog for about 2.5 years now and I appreciate your honesty about your own work/life. I agree, keep the marriage together. I just found out I was pregnant with my boyfriend’s baby (this past January) in the midst of “fast-tracking” in my career. We live in the trendy SOMA district in SF where mortgage is high and I’ve just decided to take a break from work to stay home with the baby. This is because I realized, just as you write in your columns), that career and $$$$ often times doesn’t bring happiness; our relationships do. In fact, much of my successful work years (60-80 hr weeeks)and single nights out only ended me up in more stress, more debt, more failed relationships, and expensive therapy. My boyfriend (/husband to be) is not very successful (financially or career-wise) at all. He’s from Poland and had an opportunity to become a great classical pianist – instead he decided to be a vagabound in Europe for much of his 20s pursuing alternative music and being hooked on drugs. He’s polished up pretty well – but not exactly the banker or ceo I envisioned myself marrying and showing off to my very superfical “then” friends. Now he’s a banquet/events captain (Union Employee) at a major Hotel – he makes much of his money from gratuity – the position requires no college education. It does pay well – well enough to afford him a tiny loft in SF, where we live togther now. I’m rambling, but the point is, when we first met – I wanted him to have a better and more prestigious career in music or the arts. Then one day he told me: “between you and me I am the much happier one. Do you know why?” ME: “Why” HIM: “Because I have a stable, good-paying, medium responsibility job, 8 minutes from where I live….and I come home every day at a very reasonable hour that affords me the time to spend time with my favorite lady (ME) and my guitars” I didn’t know it then, but this is one of the reasons why I fell in love with him and NOT the highly successful stress freaks I used to date. I think foreigners (Europeans/ South Americans) have a better grasp of what happiness is (love/time) and what it’s not (work/$$$). Now that I’m pregnant, we realize that it’ll be tough with me at home, but we’re willing to make the sacrifice. And we know it’ll be very, very, very tough. (We like to splurge on expensive dinners and Theory clothing) The trade-off is that we’ll be able to enjoy our little family – not something we’d have working crazy obsessed hours in high-powered careers. In the end when we’re like 80 years old, we hope that we had way more good YEARS than bad YEARS – but more importantly, that we stuck it out for each other. In business/management, the mantra is “never quit” -it’s the same for marriage.

    Good luck. Happy Mother’s Day

    Grace Briones (F, 27, Power Engineer, SF, CA)

  13. Philip
    Philip says:

    Hello Penelope,

    I am really happy I stumbled upon your blog, I look forward to reading it every chance I get.

    My wife and I have 3 children and both of us work full time and I'd say our marriage is very good, but not perfect (if there is such a thing). I can, however, relate to your current situation- we have gone through it too. Marriages have their – €˜ebbs' and – €˜flows'. Right now we are on a – €˜flow', and it's funny how I think we got there.

    My best friend from childhood was having marital problems. While talking to him I offered some insights to marriage as I see it, but as I talked I realized I had not to put these into practice myself. Here they are (I am no professional, so take them for what they are worth):

    Marriage isn't all roses and canoes (hat tip to Rodney Dangerfield). What makes a marriage work is having reasonable expectations. I am not going to swoon every time I see my wife, nor should I expect that from her.

    I used to think that my wife was upset or angry at me if she wasn't smiling. Smiling is overrated. You can't smile all the time (besides the fact your face starts to hurt, people will think there's something askew).

    Not everything needs to be talked out- sometimes and issue becomes bigger then it needs to be. (I am so guilty of this). Another way of saying this is choose your battles!

    Make sure you have – €˜us' time. You hear this all the time and it is so true. Listen to each other, talk to each other. For my wife and I, cuddling on the couch after we put the children to bed and watching t.v. is a great time to reconnect (couple glasses of wine doesn't hurt, either).

    Shop for a gift for your spouse for no reason. Not anything big, just thoughtful. You will be amazed how great you'll feel while doing it.

    I don't know if these things would work for you, but they have done wonders for my marriage. Good luck!

    And just an aside- I lost my father to Illness when I was 10. As I got older I was particularly sensitive to family structure and came to the realization that in a lot of ways I felt worse for my friends whose parents were going through divorce. I knew my parents loved each other and loved me- most of my friends whose parents divorced couldn’t say that.

  14. Shweta
    Shweta says:

    Thanks for sharing your personal thoughts with all of us, Penelope. It is a big issue which impacts many lives together. I feel quite a few of us arrive at this decision when stressed out of situations / circumstances and often when we have different “expectations” that don;t seem to materialize somehow. Keeping a marriage together is a tough job and needs work every now and then if not every day! but calling it quits is easier. But most often we find that the tougher way is more satisfying in the longer run .. when many years from now the spouses can look back and say “wow, great that we managed to stay together and worked it out, it was rough then but that is how we were tested.”
    Of course, some reasons for divorce are very much justified but when it comes to just a few personal reasons, I feel it is best to give it another chance. Sometimes just giving it time and also doing something about it.
    You are right about the working woman choices and time management as she manages work and family, but the choice is still there- the choice to have a healthy life-work balance, the choice to work only a few hours a day and spend the rest with the family, yes of course, it depends on how successful you are and how you want to be .. a choice between great career success and family time – no not always but yes – at times – we women have to make.
    But as you have said before in your posts – the satisfaction and happiness comes out of relationships and bonds.
    There is one or more Miranda Priestly and Andy Sachs in every city in every country ..
    the choices are tough but we must make sure that we HAVE A CHOICE.
    All good wishes to you!

  15. Amy Vachon
    Amy Vachon says:

    Amen to reprioritizing our lives towards our relationships rather than the standard American dream. My marriage is way more important to me than any job, and even ranks higher than my parenting. It isn’t easy to live this way every day, but our jobs should have built-in ways to get close rather than built-in wrenches tearing couples apart. You write often about how ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ says that money only brings happiness if one is extremely poor, and that happiness increases only minutely (or not at all) at salaries great than $40,000. But yet our society tells us to get more, more, more – money, accomplishments, power. The truth will out, however…our relationships usually suffer and we’re left with far less of what really matters.

    Here’s to reduced-hours jobs for both spouses (with short commutes), and gender equality! I truly believe this is a recipe for happiness for many.

  16. PunditMom
    PunditMom says:

    This is a brilliant post. I just wish I had come confidence that any employers will look at this truth and this reality in a serious way. Keeping my marriage strong is something I think about a lot, but feel that I fail at implementing, partly because of the crazy, work-a-holic hours that are required from my spouse to be “successful” in law firms today.

  17. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    1. Those boomer couples did a lot of experimenting that benefits those who follow them now. So, yeah, they made mistakes (and still rationalize them) but simple put downs on the basis of statistics aren’t fair.

    2. Sorry to hear that you’ve got problems.

    I read Divorce Remedy by Michelle Weiner-Davis and liked it. You might want to read it. However, I remember thinking that not many people could try as hard to renew their relationships as some of those she describes in her case histories.

    Perhaps that’s because some of the couples were already living apart with one interested in getting back together while the other has no interest at all.

    I can’t remember all the details. I just remember thinking that some of those people had to be saints to tolerate the kind of negative responses to their overtures that they endured and still kept going.

    “I tell myself that no one is in love every second of their marriage. I tell myself that this is a really bad time in our marriage and I will have to work really hard to make it better.”

    That sounds like it’s probably true. However, you have to wonder how many married people are actually crazy about eachother after a few years.

    Our former governor-general, Adrienne Clarkson, now in her sixties is a very good looking, bright woman who used to be a broadcaster.

    Divorced and remarried herself, yesterday I heard her say in an interview that she thinks that when she was a kid about 80% of couples weren’t happy in their relationships.

  18. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    Another brave post–personal, controversial, laden with facts and links.

    I totally agree that there isn’t enough emphasis placed on trying to keep marriages together. Part of this is that talking about the importance of marriage is now seen as a sign that one is a right-wing religious nut, rather than simply someone who cares about family. When did saying that people should stay married become a dirty word?

    In terms of statistics, the work that Martin Seligman did in “Learned Optimism” shows that divorce is very bad for kids, AND shows that parents who fight all the time, but stay married are almost as bad.

    “Children of divorce tend to be much more depressed

    More bad things happen to them than children of intact families–even things that can’t be explained by the divorce

    * 3.5x chance that a sibling will be hospitalized
    * 3.5x chance that the child will be hospitalized
    * 2x chance that a friend of the child will die
    * 2x chance that a grandparent will die

    Alas, parents who fight a lot but don’t get divorced cause nearly as many problems.”

    In other words, simply avoiding divorce isn’t the issue, you have to actually repair the marriage to reap the benefits.

    Common sense? Perhaps. But in this day and age, common sense seems rarer than ever.

  19. Jaerid
    Jaerid says:


    Really an excellent post. Despite the comments about the generalizations, I think a lot of your basic ideas are fairly spot on.

    I'll give you my perspective on it (a child of divorce, married millennial with a 15 month old son). As my wife and I navigate the aftermath of the first child (don't get me wrong it's been wonderful but it totally changes a marriage) we have certainly had challenges and difficulties. My wife is a teacher and subsequently gets the summers off, so we get to experience what it is like to have one spouse/parent home for about two months every year. All I can say is that it is the best two months of the year and here is why:

    1. She doesn't have the added stress from work

    2. She gets to spend great quality time with our son

    3. She gets to pursue some of the hobbies she enjoys but has no time for during the school year

    4. She is able to get some of the chores done around the house during the day

    5. Because she is able to get the chores done for our personal lives that we would normally be spending our weekends and nights doing, we have more time to just enjoy each other's company or go play with our son at the park.

    6. My wife ends up just feeling better because she isn't burnt out from work on top of the normal day to day stuff.

    7. I end up less stressed out because when I come home I get more time with my family instead of trying to tackle the odds and ends around the house.

    It really works well those months and I would love to be able to take time off opposite the summer to let my wife experience it from the other side. Either way, the benefit of having someone home is really tremendous as long as the person at home wants to be there (and that's a critical piece of it).

    As far as divorce having negative effects on children – €“ people are truly kidding themselves if they think that even a "smooth" divorce will not have an influence on a child's life (I speak from experience). That's not to say that bad marriages should always stay together either. The point is that you can't neglect your marriage for the sake of your career or your kids (or vice versa) because as soon as one fails it will affect the others. I know we are not fond of the work-life balance thing, but a stay at home spouse really can help level the equation and result in happier and more fulfilled lives for the entire family.

  20. Alice Bachini-Smith
    Alice Bachini-Smith says:

    Fantastic post. I’m divorced- don’t recommend it at all- parenting is very hard indeed this way, and you’re looking at another ten plus years of that in most cases. Married people often need support in getting along and making their life together good and fulfilling, and I don’t see a lot of that outside of religions so far.

    I’d like to see more men concerned about actively working on their marriages. They seem to feel powerless and then let things ride instead of wining and dining their wives. (My husband, who would agree with all that, is thinking of starting a blog about such things. My view is that mostly women would read it…)

    I’d like to express enthusiastic support for divorced parents like me who are determined to beat the odds! It may be hard but perhaps some of us can ensure our children’s happiness etc through conscious hard work, sensitivity and maximal teamwork with their other parent.

    I do hope the stressful times pass for you asap. I know how hard it can be from my own experiences, and really admire your determination and positive attitude.

    * * * * *
    Thanks for this comment, Alice. I think there is a wide audience for men who are concerned about parenting and family issues. One of my favorites in this area is Chris Yeh — who comments on this blog a lot about parenting issues but also has his own blog:

    I also want to give three cheers to the idea of beating the odds with a second marriage. I was really happy to see the divorce rates going down so much (for some groups). I hope to see the same for the divorce rates of second marriages.


  21. Harry Joiner
    Harry Joiner says:

    Not many blog posts are so good that I wish I’d written them myself. This piece reads like it was influenced by Fulton Sheen’s obscure classic “Three to Get Married.” I doubt it was, but that’s a high complement nonetheless.

  22. verysadtoday
    verysadtoday says:

    Growing up in the 60s and 70s my “mother” stayed home and it wasn’t until we all were in h.s. in the 80s that she got a job.

    I wish my parents got a divorce. I wish I’d been taken into the child welfare system. Anything would have been better than the dysfunctional family I lived in.

    I don’t know the statistics, but I’d argue with the assumption that having a stay at home parent and married parents is always the best situation.

    It would be good if more attention was paid to keeping marriages intact. It would also be good if more attention was paid to removing the structural penalties that hurt women whenever they leave the workforce or in the event of death or divorce. These aren’t mutually exclusive.

    The problem is that women bear the babies and men run the companies. It’s like the old saw, if men got pregnant abortion would be a sacrament.

    * * * * * *

    First, I’m really sorry to hear about your childhood.

    Second, I was thinking, like you, that there are a lot of penalties for women who divorce and that we should deal with the legal procedures to help women feel less vulnerable. But I interviewd a bunch of lawyers and they were unanamous — from different states and different types of divorce practices — that both parties are hurt equally in a divorce.

    The laywers said that women worry more about the immediate issues than men do — how to pay electricity, where will the kids live — but that structurally speaking, the law does not put the women in a worse position than men. I was very surprised to hear this, but i heard it over and over again. And,  in fact, I had to rewrite this post due to the response I got from the lawyers.


  23. Martha
    Martha says:

    A very interesting post. Thanks to Penelope and all the contributors.

    I felt compelled to make a point about the following comment…

    “Second, when a woman stays at home the marriage is more likely to stay intact,”

    I wondered if this came from a study that showed correlation or causation. I would be willing to bet that marriages without financial stress are more more likely to stay intact than those where every penny counts. If you have enough money for one person to forgo work, you probably have enough resources to make quite a few other problems go away too. My husband is a wonderful man but NOT a big earner. As long as the business I own is doing great …our marriage goes a lot better. When business is good, he can work or not, he can maintain the homes of both sets of our ailing parents, we don’t have to discuss it when he wants an expensive noisy sound system to watch sports….

    When my business is going badly…there is a lot less focus on fun.

  24. Almost Got It
    Almost Got It says:

    I’m too old to be compelled to add any more advice. And too old, and too long married, to be shocked by people admitting they are having a hard time. (But thank you for admitting it. That was very brave of you.) So how about if some of old* people just sit here sympathetically with you for a minute, then, Penelope-or-whoever-you-really-are. Because the “ick” stuff is real, and really awful, and even people with wonderful pseudonyms need people to sit with them sometimes (BTW, today I got to be pseudonymously “Emily” in someone’s blog post about me. Almost as cool as “Penelope”…)

    *”old” as in, you know, 40-ish. Is that old enough, yet, to be part of the you-can’t-say-anything-because-you’re-boomers demographic? When do we get to be old enough to be helpful helicopter parents who might actually have learned something? Oh never mind. ;)

    Hang in there. No, Oops. That *wasn’t* advice…

  25. jaerid
    jaerid says:

    "I'd like to see more men concerned about actively working on their marriages. They seem to feel powerless and then let things ride instead of wining and dining their wives."

    I'm sorry Alice but I think this statement opens a can of worms. You mean to tell me that if a man feels powerless in his marriage all he has to do is take his wife out to eat? Just spend money on her to make it all better? How about a designer handbag to seal the deal? Is not possible that he is powerless because his wife refuses to compromise with him? Or that she is just crazy?

    The other thing about this statement is the notion that women can just be bought. Pump a little wine into them and a good meal at a fancy restaurant to make them feel special – €“ that's all it takes!

    The sad thing is that I know some (not all) women actually feel this way. Ask them how their husband was romantic with them and you'll get a story about something he bought them or he took them somewhere fancy. Maybe I'm just too simple minded but it's really disappointing that "romance" involves men spending money on women.

  26. melanie gao
    melanie gao says:

    Another example of why I love your blog – the fact that you share some of the pain you’re going through is so authentic. And the fact that your husband is OK with that makes me think he’s gotta be a wonderful man. Or he has no internet access. ;)

    I wish you all the best in your relationship. The fact that you want your marriage to work is a very good sign.

    You mentioned that if you divorce, you make your kids 50% more likely to divorce. I think you’re assuming a casual relationship where one doesn’t necessarily exist. Kids of divorced parents might be 50% more likely to divorce, but it doesn’t mean their divorced parents caused this.

  27. Chris
    Chris says:

    As someone who is a child of divorce AND going through a difficult time in my own relationship, I read this post and all of the comments with great interest. I can’t comment on statistics, but I can say this: my childhood got a lot better when my parents split up. All of my friends whose parents divorced are glad they got divorced. And many of my friends whose parents stayed together WISH they had gotten divorced.

    As with all work/life balance issues, there is no right answer. There is only making the choice that feels best at the time. Sometimes the best choice is best for the parent and sometimes the best choice is best for the kid and sometimes if you’re really lucky, the best choice is the best for everyone.

  28. Brian Johnson
    Brian Johnson says:

    For those that assert that a divorce can or has improved the well-being of a child, I wonder from what perspective that is being measured. While it’s very likely that in a terrible marriage a divorce provides a situational improvement over the lowest previous point, I think the comparison should instead be based against a lifelong marriage with the requisite ups and downs instead of just the lowest point.

    To really save a marriage to the level that provides a positive family dynamic, steps must be taken long before it reaches its lowest point – unlike an alcoholic that has to hit rock bottom before making changes. I would guess that most marriages ending in divorce had a point at which intervention and concessions could have changed the outcome. Even the ugliest divorce probably started with at least a pretty happy courtship and wedding day. And if the tide is turned at that point (which I think is the kind of change Penelope is advocating instead of a lifetime of “grin and bear it for the kids”) and the outcome is then a lifelong marriage, I don’t think anyone could possibly argue that a divorce would ultimately be a better option for the child.

    In regards to generalizations, I don’t see any problem with using them to address societal issues as done in this post. They’re called “generalizations” because they’re generally correct. Certainly a decent therapist would use the specific circumstances of a case to make recommendations instead of relying on some generalization. But we’re not talking about an individual case here. These are broad issues throughout our culture. The only way to effectively discuss and deal with huge issues is to use sweeping generalizations that are accurate for large numbers of people, but certainly not everybody. The research cited provides more than enough evidence to substantiate the conclusions of the author. For the commenters on the defensive about generalizations, it looks as though this struck a nerve – even more proof that they’re likely accurate.

    Penelope – this is a brilliant post and the best one I’ve ready yet. I wish your Yahoo column could have this type of material. The stuff you have to write about on Yahoo short-changes your talent. Reading about the declining divorce rate is the most encouraging statistic I’ve seen in years. Bravo Gen X – I knew we could do it!

  29. Jenflex
    Jenflex says:


    Sorry to hear you are having troubles right now. Please be sure to make time for the two of you. You mentioned this in your post about the risk of infidelity at conferences…that the environment at a conference is conducive to romance, and that’s the one thing working couples have trouble making for each other. Good luck and best wishes…I know you’ll be able to reconnect and remember why you are together.

  30. Erik Mazzone
    Erik Mazzone says:

    Very interesting and incredibly honest post, Penelope. I practiced divorce law for many years, and agree with many of the points you made. I would add an additional one, as well:

    Going through a divorce often leads to a deterioration in the quality and quantity of work and employee can give to his/her job. Career prospects suffer as a result, sometimes dramatically and quickly.

    Though many employers are sensitive to the difficulties faced by an employee going through a divorce (emotional, fiscal, logistical, etc.) it is not unusual for jobs to be compromised or lost altogether during these stressful periods. This turnover and strife is not good for the children, the parents/employees, or the organization(s) they work for. It most certainly is a workplace issue.

    It is a very challenging road, whether one chooses to get divorced or to stay and work on a stressed marriage. I wish you the best of luck with your family’s struggles, as well.


  31. Alice Bachini-Smith
    Alice Bachini-Smith says:

    "I'd like to see more men concerned about actively working on their marriages. They seem to feel powerless and then let things ride instead of wining and dining their wives."

    I'm sorry Alice but I think this statement opens a can of worms. – jaered

    You’re right, jaerid. I was just stating a personal impression/ hunch there. You’d need stacks more evidence etc to turn it into a serious informed argument.

    I’d love to see more research on relationships and gender differences. Another of my hunches is that (differently gendered) spouses are expected to be more similar than they actually are, limiting the benefits of marital counselling.

  32. verysadtoday
    verysadtoday says:

    Thanks for the personal reply Penelope.

    In your post you said that women who stay home are vulnerable. That’s true. They’re not only vulnerable because of divorce. That was my point when I said not to forget the structural penalties against women who leave the workforce.

    If a woman leaves the workforce, and her husband dies, she can find pensions and social security vanishing or being reduced because of her lack employment.

    Men may suffer equally because of divorce, but women have more obstacles in the way of earning a living and that goes for married, divorced, widowed, or always single.

    If working stresses a marriage and not working makes a woman vulnerable, both are problems.

  33. Steven
    Steven says:

    I have seen many people “take care of the childeren” and “take care of their careers” and take care of “themselves personally” and then be baffled as to why they have fragile marriages.

    Marriage is not just the sum of all of these things together. Marriage is something else that may include all of this but also lives in addition to these things. Marriage needs consideration, space and time.

    Marriage is more than “partnership”. Marriage means vows. (personally, I am a Buddhist, but I think “vows” works across faiths)

    As you say, we are not always in love every minute of our marriage. Vows provide a benefit beyond the moment.

    That said, our vows can bring us strength in the moments where love is hard to find.

    Likewise, being a person who keeps their promises, even only to yourself and your spouse, benefits everyone.

  34. Steve
    Steve says:

    Exceptional post Penelope – in content and candor. What strikes me as most fascinating though, is the responses. Why is that about 2/3rds seem to argue against what you’re suggesting? I have been married for 21 years and there have been times of joyful bliss and complete hell. We nearly did divorce and had every reason to support the choice. Instead, we fought through it and I wouldn’t trade the depth of mutual respect and love we have for anything.

    My point? What you are advocating – that “we” begin supporting, TRULY supporting the work and efforts involved in having successful marriages – is exactly what’s needed. Bravo Penelope. And BTW, I have complete belief that you’ll do the work for your marriage too.

  35. John
    John says:

    Are you sure your husband is OK with this post? It makes for a compelling read, but issues in your relationship may be inappropriate for a public forum. I can tell you that I would not want to be a subject of a blog in this context. Perhaps your husband also feels this way. Maybe he hasn’t shared that with you out of respect for your work.

    My best to you both. I hope your difficulties are short lived.

  36. Peggy
    Peggy says:

    Hi Penelope – sorry to hear that times are stresful, but I really encourage you to hang in there. Having young children is very stressful – it’s normal for a marriage to feel the strain. Believe me, it really does get easier as the kids get older – well, marriage gets easier, childrearing gets more challenging when middle school comes along! ;-)

    Regarding holding a marriage together despite the difficulties…I am currently working on a national research project where I am interviewing professional women about their work-family experiences and most of the women who have divorced and re-married have told me (un-prompted by any question) that if they could do it over again they would find a way to make their first marriage work because of the impact it had on their kids and on their work-family situation.

    And regarding the impact on divorce on children, I read a research study a year or so ago that found that children who are in joint-custody situations (i.e., 50-50 with each parent) have the psychological characteristics of homeless kids. If I can find it, I’ll send the link. It was also pretty much squelched quickly. I know folks who are divorced don’t like hearing those things. And I do believe there are situations where divorce is the only answer so I’m not trying to judge…just saying what I read.

    Hang in there.

    Here’s the link: “And the myth that children of divorce have “two homes” is the opposite of the truth. Many of these children report feeling as if they have no home — because they don’t really belong anywhere, especially if step-siblings and half-siblings are involved. When you migrate between households where there are children who do not migrate, then the child who is in permanent residence is always at home, while the child who migrates — the child of divorce — is always a visitor. ”  

  37. Greg
    Greg says:

    Wow. What a post. What guts to post it.

    Marriage and family is by far the toughest thing I have ever attempted. Although my wife and I are committed to each other (first) and our kids, we have run up against issues we can no longer deal with on our own. So we are in counseling.

    One of the challenges I am continually working through as a husband and a parent is what to give up for the family. In practice, I have given up most pursuits that involve "me" in exchange for what involves the entire family. Most of the time it is great, some times it stinks. I also struggle with finding "alone time" with just me and my wife.

    Penelope, I admire your openness about the struggles you and your husband are working through. I wish I could give you "Three Steps to a Perfect Marriage," but it does not exist. But I hope there is some solace that others are struggling to hold on to their marriage and family because there is nothing on the human level as important or worthwhile to struggle and sacrifice to hold on to.

  38. Sarah D
    Sarah D says:

    Wow. Amazing post Penelope. It’s quite funny that most of the comments here seem to completely ignore your call to action. This, to me, was the most insightful and therefore the most truly useful bit of information in your entire post, and yet most (although not all) commentators seem to have missed it. So it’s worth pointing out again:

    “Both men and women need to figure out how talk about how to make better marriages. We need to take all our energy we spend talking about the risks of stay-at-home parenting, and the risks of dual-career families, and put that thinking power toward what makes a marriage strong.”

    …so what do most people do?! Jump straight back on the usual old bandwagons of stay-at-home parenting and dual-career families, with a dash of how-dare-you-divorce-is-not-bad-for-my-kids thrown in!

    I also fully agree with the poster who said that quality relationship time should be discussed just as frequently as quality kids time (or even quality me time), and I think this is yet another area where we’ll see upcoming generations differ from those who have bravely gone before.

    To me, this links in with the blended life discussions on previous posts. Relationships are hard work, and like most things, e.g. networking, blogging and careers, you only get out what you put in. Of course sometimes they just don’t work out and that’s fine, but at least you know you’ve given it (at the very least) the same shot as what you’d give to any other part of your life because, clearly, the stakes are a lot higher.

    In fact, my relationship is one of the main reasons I opted out of a corporate career a couple of years back. Not that I’ve ever dared admit this among friends or colleagues. I felt that the precious little time and energy I was left with after a demanding day of work meant that I didn’t feel I had much to invest in my relationship, even at that early stage. And I don’t consider myself to lack ambition, drive or energy, either. It wasn’t hard to figure out that there was no way I was ever going to be able to give all my energy to everything – i.e. a time-and-energy-draining career, a relationship that needs to be worked on just as much as anybody else’s, maybe even raise kids someday AND still have time to eat well, floss, be happy and exercise. So, true to my generation type perhaps, I decided to make myself responsible for how I’d like to blend these elements of my life. Does that make me self-centred? I don’t think so, if me, my husband and my family will benefit as a result. Is it working?? I dunno, I think it’s a work in progress! I’m sure I’ll still have career what-ifs, feel guilty about my childrearing decisions, require the occasional filling and hit those inevitable rough relationship patches when I seriously consider walking. (And I’ll definitely earn less over my lifetime). But at the very least, I think I can look myself in the eye and say I’m investing my time and energy into the elements of my life that are most important to me.

  39. Martha
    Martha says:

    I don’t mean this unkindly, but I think marriage, once a simple property arrangement, then the sign of a prosperous middle class, and now…what? Well, I think it’s broken, and may not be fixable. I think marriages in this underinsured overpressured outsourced country are asked to do too many things these days, and that’s why they don’t stand up under pressure–ironically, as we are ever more marketed to to save our marriages, have bigger weddings, etc. What Penelope says makes sense. I’m just not holding my breath.

    And yes, I am married and hope to stay so.

  40. Jennifer Zajac
    Jennifer Zajac says:

    It’s been said here before but I’ll say it again: Your best post yet, Penelope. Thank you for your honesty about this subject that so many of us relate to yet rarely discuss.
    Life should not be this hard on the working woman and the working woman’s family. We should not be so hard on oursevles, either.
    Gotta go; need to write my column.

  41. Casey Dawes
    Casey Dawes says:

    Let’s start with — I’m a boomer. I’ve been married four times and divorced three (I had a penchant for marrying alcoholics before I figured out that I didn’t have to :-))

    The comment that I found most interesting was the last paragraph: “So this is my call for a shift in discussion about women and work. Both men and women need to figure out how talk about how to make better marriages. We need to take all our energy we spend talking about the risks of stay-at-home parenting, and the risks of dual-career families, and put that thinking power toward what makes a marriage strong.”

    That is a brilliant suggestion.

    We spend so much time in the public sphere debating these questions that we forget that marriage is between two people who need to spend time and energy together to work things out. There’s so much pressure for them to be and do outside the home that only as a combined front can they resist the pressure to work too long and buy too much.

    I also like the perspective of the positive in the suggestion. Let’s find out what makes marriages work instead of focusing on what doesn’t make them work. I don’t think the answer is one-size-fits-all, but the answer does start with the two people involved finding out who they are individually, acknowledging that, and then finding out who they are in relationship to each other and continue that discovery during the whole of their marriage.

    I salute the next generations — I find you all so very awesome!

  42. Neil
    Neil says:

    It’s a shame that many of the responses to your article are accusations covering self-justification. The nature of the accusations being that your comments are personal and have no empirical evidence to back them up. The real truth is that, after decades of study, the objective evidence for what you say is now out there and amassing fast.

    So, what would I know? My testimony is automatically invalidated because I am a man. An interesting world we have created for ourselves over the last 40-odd years.

  43. Grace Chase
    Grace Chase says:

    What makes marriage work for me is that it is living with my best friend. As long as we share things with each other and care about each other’s feelings it goes really well. If you feel you are neglecting those areas, then just focus a little more on them. If you feel your spouse is neglecting those areas, give them the benefit of the doubt while heaping love on them and gentle reminders of what would make you feel included and cared for. The times I’ve gotten myself into a bad marriage moment have been because I was focused way too much on me and not thinking of how it made my spouse feel. When I’m honest with myself, I know the difference. Good luck and much warmth to the two of you!

  44. gt
    gt says:

    I’ll throw in my two cents worth. Both spouses working can work out if both are willing to work on what is important to them. If that is marriage, then work on the marriage. If both don’t agree, then there is only discontentment in the future for at least one of the partners.
    Women in the workplace has been a commonplace for some time now, but it was not as common within my lifetime. In general, most of the women who worked in the 50’s and 60’s were single, young and with no children. Many women went to work in hopes of finding a man to marry and to settle down and then stay home. As more women ventured into the workplace for greater reasons than to meet their eventual spouse, marriages seem to have begun to suffer more. The divorce rate has been higher in the decades that appear statistically to coincide with the increase in women in the workplace. Much of this can probably be attributed to the extra stress added to the family to cope with the change in management of the family’s needs (children, shared finances, etc.). Still other reasons appear to be womens’ discovery that they can earn their own way and no longer need the financial support of a man, so it has become an easier decision for some to opt-out of their financial dependant marriage. Other statistics show a higher level of divorce probably due to more women being around more men in the workplace creating social situations that didn’t exist before when women stayed at home and didn’t have the opportunity to meet so many single or married men. The office place has been cited as the single most dangerous spot for the development of affairs and subsequently divorce for many. That’s not to say women should leave the workforce, but rather it has become apparent that given the chance to be away from home, women have had an equal opportunity to do the same “damage” to their marriages as men have been singled out as the past. for instance, it is difficult to believe that men still far exceed the percentages of the gender that has the most affairs. Unless it is only single women and married men who have affairs, then it would seem logical that there are closer to an equal number of women as men having affairs. Men tend to report this type of behavior more accurately as it is still not quite the stigma as if women reported the same.

    So if one is to put these observations together, it would seem to make sense from the “keep your marriage intact by staying at home arguement” could be valid. However, does a woman want to stay at home and risk having no financial protection in case her husband leaves her? For many women that answer is “no!”. Many states do not award maintenance payments after divorce anymore.
    Many women appear to be either wired from birth or acquire from learned behaviors that their number one need is to take care of themselves by virtue of finances, either by their own work or by acquired works (their husbands). Many women seem to sacrifice their souls for the man they are unhappily married to just so they can have financial security. I can understand the need of women to do something that they like to do, be it work or stay at home. Everyone, man or woman, should decide for themselves what is most comfortable and fulfilling. Unfortunately, we don’t always get what we want, and that creates conflict with ourselves and to those around us. Both sexes in the workplace has done a lot of good and bad at the same time. Greater productivity, greater diversity in views, etc. But the sacrifice seems to have been the integrity of the marriage and family. Women don’t need men as much (at least the ones who are in it for the money). Women and men are more apt to stray outside of their marriages when put together in close social environments, like the workplace. Children suffer with one or now both parents spread thin between work and household duties. I believe we can all learn how to adjust to both spouses working, but there will most likely need to be some sacrifice by one or both. That will probably only work if there is no resentment or inequality (at least perceived) of the sacrifice. As humans, we all knowingly or not, admit to ourselves or not, keep tallies of what we think we deserve or owe to others. Unfortunately, also as humans, there is a tendancy towards selfishness so the tallies tend to be scewed towards getting more than giving.

    The workplace is great for business, but really for many reasons does not seem to be good for the marriage and family if both spouses work.

  45. Gloria
    Gloria says:

    I suppose it takes a lot of maturity for a marriage to work, with or without the factor of working or stay at home mom. The reasons that kept marriages working in previous generations seems to resume importance in the current one probably in a more conscious way.

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