It’s always struck me as odd so many men refer to marriage as though it’s something they do begrudgingly, to appease women.
Because, truly, no one gets more enraged and sends more vitriol my way than men do, when I talk about women opting out of tying the knot, or of my own choice to leave my marriage in my early 30s.
I’m not surprised. Men overwhelmingly benefit from saying “I do”.
The latest data to come out of the Australian Bureau of Statistics confirms their lives become vastly easier when they’re coupled up. It found just 42 per cent of male spouses do housework, and that, on top of domestic labour, their wives also do the lion’s share of childcare.
And while heterosexual men often use pejoratives like “tied down” and “ball-and-chain” to talk about matrimony, in reality it’s women who discover the utopia promised to them on the other side of the wedding day is actually a steady descent into quiet misery and resentment.
So ubiquitous is this experience, TEDx speaker and therapist Michele Weiner-Davis coined the term “Walkaway Wife Syndrome” in a now-viral 2008 blog examining why two thirds of divorces are initiated by women (a statistic backed up by the American Sociological Association).
In her blog, Weiner-Davis suggests part of the reason women become disgruntled with marriage is because they’re routinely relegated to the role of “emotional caretakers” in their relationships.
“She makes certain her marriage remains a priority, insisting on quality time together, meaningful conversation, and shared activities,” Weiner-Davis writes.
As most coupled-up straight women know, this disproportionate output of emotional labour soon gives way to what we’ve conditioned to view as “nagging” – repeated unanswered pleas for equal contribution to the relationship.
One of my married friends calls it “mothering”, explaining, “You get to a stage where you don’t feel like having sex anymore because you’re just so tired of constantly asking him not to throw his wet towel on the bed and take out the garbage and you can’t remember the last time he asked you about your life or took you out.”
Heterosexual men will often contest complaints like this from their spouses, insisting, “If she nagged me less and asked nicely, I’d be more likely to do it,” or “I’m not a mind-reader, if she wants me to talk to her more or plan a date, she needs to tell me,” which, of course, entirely misses the point.
Women are rarely reminded to take care of their kids, show up emotionally for their partners, or carry out domestic chores. More often than not (certainly according to the research), they just do it.
Continually having to petition your spouse to participate in the relationship while managing your own emotional and domestic labour is a recipe for the silent resentment that frequently manifests as sexlessness among married heterosexual couples.
In a follow-up blog on “Walkaway Wife Syndrome” published last month, Weiner-Davis hypothesises it’s this resentment that sparks the cycle of relational and sexual apathy that ultimately brings couples undone.
“When men don’t spend quality time with their wives, women stop wanting sex. When women stop wanting sex, men invest less and less of themselves in their relationships.”
They key difference here though, which Weiner-Davis overlooks, is that, even in the absence of regular sexual intimacy, men are less eager to abandon ship thanks to the myriad benefits having a wife affords them.
There’s no starker example of this than the (now deleted) tweet productivity guru Tobi Emonts-Holley posted earlier this year, boasting: “Over the past 10 years, I have earned a Ph.D. and got promoted to CEO while having 6 kids,” going on to reveal his “secret” was weekly self-reflection, implementing to-do lists, and planning ahead.
What Emonts-Holley failed to mention, was none of those hacks would have been particularly useful had he not had a wife doing the majority of domestic labour and child-rearing for him.
It’s particularly illuminating the same ABS report released last week showed more women experience stress than men.
Burnt out from carrying the weight of their entire relationships, it’s these women who will go on to plan their exit strategies (“I’ll leave after the eldest child graduates/once I can financially support myself/when the kids move out”) before initiating divorce proceedings.
And there’s overwhelming research to show that, in spite of the disparaging labels men assign to women who unsubscribe from marriage (“spinster”, “old maid”, “over the hill”, “cat lady”) we thrive when unattached to a male partner.
A study by market research firm Mintel, found women are happier being single than men and that, as a result, fewer single women are looking for relationships than single men. And a new report by Bloomberg additionally suggests single, childfree women aren’t just more content, they’re earning more money, too.
Though heterosexual marriage continues to fall behind the progress we’ve made toward gender parity, the era of the “Walkaway Wife” suggests more women are seeing through its Cinderella facade.
Because in truth, what most women will find at the altar isn’t a Prince Charming, but endless nights resentfully rolled to one side of the bed, longing for dreams brushed aside to – as Weiner-Davis puts it – “emotionally caretake” men who fail to show a reciprocal interest in their lives, or meaningfully contribute to their households.
It’s no coincidence it’s almost exclusively men who get angry every time I write about this – unlike their female counterparts, they have a lot to lose.
Upon discovering the ball-and-chain have been attached to their ankles all along, women are unshackling themselves from lives of quiet servitude and sexlessness in favour of so-called “spinsterhood”.
If you’re reading this as a happily married woman, screaming, “this isn’t me! I never have to ask my husband to do anything, and our sex life is great!” congratulations, you’re an outlier.
But if instead, you’ve ever wondered if this is all there is – perhaps even allowed yourself to imagine an alternate future – take heart in knowing there’s untapped joy beyond the false promise you’ve been sold.
As someone regularly labelled a spinster these days (despite the fact I’m now happily coupled up with a woman), I’m here to tell you just how much better it can get.
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