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Chapter Five Women Friends and Marriage Work
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Chapter Five
Women Friends and Marriage Work

"If he knew some of the things I talk about with her, he'd have a fit!" When the women I interviewed laughingly made comments like this, they were usually recounting how they talked to friends about problems with their partner. My questions about confiding in best friends gave me another angle on women's friendships in relation to their commitments to marriage. My object was to learn how women exposed problems in the supposedly private sphere of marriage to close friends, with what aims in mind, and with what effects on the marriage and the friendship.

We might plausibly predict—given the partisan nature of friendship and the concerns of friends for each other's happiness and well-being—that friends who confer on problems in marriage would find strong support for their grievances and strong encouragement for strategies advancing their interests over those of their spouse. That is not what I found. To explain the actual involvement of women friends in each other's marital problems, I must explain how women defined their friends' (and their own) interests and well-being and consider how these definitions shaped marriage work.

All the women said they talked about their marriages or romances to close women friends. All but two routinely talked about problems in marriage or romance as they occurred. Seventeen (of twenty-one) easily specified ways friends had helped them when


they had difficulties with their husbands or boyfriends. Of the married women one-half even specified ways they believed friends had helped them keep their marriages together; over three-quarters at least occasionally discussed a marital disagreement first with a friend before raising it with a partner; the same proportion talked to a friend about how to talk about a problem with a partner. Four of the thirteen women I asked had talked over their most recent marital disagreement with a friend before they talked it over with their husbands. Clearly, these close women friends are involved with each other's marriage.

Marriage Work

A useful way to examine the active involvement of friends in each other's marriage is in a process I call marriage work, building on Arlie Hochschild's concept of "emotion work."[1]Marriage work refers to reflection and action to achieve or sustain the stability of a marriage or a sense of its adequacy. I see marriage work as a voluntary and individually improvised effort rather than one institutionally specified. The term work is not a synonym for role. Bather, work indicates the purposive and exertive quality of the activity and connotes a sense of craft; it is purposive because it is intentional. Within this component I might include unconsciously destructive motives and marriage work that proves ultimately subversive of marriage.

Marriage work may intend to influence or accommodate. Influence-oriented marriage work uses power to produce effects on marriage. Its strategies may be coercive, combative, manipulative, or based on bargaining. Accommodative strategies aim to adjust oneself to a situation or capitulate to the demands of another. I consider accommodation a strategy in this discussion because the object of action is commitment, not power. A strategy of accommodation may sustain one's marriage commitment. Moreover, marriage work may aim at oneself or at one's situation, which in-eludes others.

Emotion Work

There is a type of serf-oriented marriage work that Arlie Hochschild has labeled "emotion management." Emotion management


(or emotion work) refers to "the act of trying to change in degree or quality an emotion or feeling." Hochschild identifies emotion work in acts upon nonreflective primary emotion, attempts to comply with "feeling rules" that are implicit in authoritative ideologies;[2] an example is the attempt not to be angry when one believes one has "no right" to be. I depart from Hochschild's schema to reserve the term emotion work for work upon the self; I include emotion work upon others in my second category, situation management (my reasons for doing so should become clear by the end of this chapter).

Among Hochschild's techniques of emotion work, I focus on cognitive techniques: "the attempt to change images, ideas, or thoughts in the service of changing feelings associated with them."[3] In women's accounts of discussions among friends we can identify their cooperation in cognitive emotion work. Every woman I spoke to said that talking to a friend had changed her attitude or feelings about her husband or about a disagreement with him. All but one easily produced examples. The most frequent first description of a friend's help with emotion work was just listening, although something more than passive listening was often implied.

I think it helps just to freely say it out loud to someone you earl trust.

I can let out things that have been pent up inside me. I can let them out and forget them.

The best thing is just having someone else to hear it, so that I know I'm not really nuts.

[My friend] just being there if I need to talk to somebody. That kind of emotional support. . .. Sometimes it puts it into perspective just to hear it out loud. Or to hear what someone unbiased thinks about it.

Several women said that the opportunity to think aloud, without getting advice or guidance, allowed them to explore their own minds at some distance from the emotion, confusion, or conflict they felt when examining a marital problem. But whatever the value of "just listening," most of the women added, as did Kay above, that they engaged in a more extensive give-and-take on the subject of each other's marriage problems. "There are times when it's appropriate to listen to someone bitch, and there are times when it's appropriate to give some constructive criticism. Sally and


I have done both for each other. Nowadays, she tends to come to me for advice and I tend to go to her to listen."

The advice and "constructive criticism" is the end product of a process that involves a woman in actively examining and analyzing her friend's situation, behavior, and emotions. Gail explained: "They showed me ways I hadn't seen before of looking at a situation. They've given me different viewpoints from the ones I was taking. And their views made sense. I'd take Gwen's viewpoint and look at it and think, 'Yeah, this really could be happening for that reason. I hadn't even thought of it!'" The result, Gail went on to explain, is "a better evaluation of a situation," "relief" from anger— new bases of tolerance. Exploring the aims, contents, and effects of emotion-oriented exchanges will take us further into the nature of marriage work among friends.

One mode of emotion work for which friends are frequently credited aims to generate empathy for a woman's husband.

So much of the time I only see my side—I've got blinders on. And June will say, "You know, he's probably feeling real insecure and angry." And for the first time I'll realize there's another human being mixed up in this, instead of just me and my own passions.

Vera could see Hal's problems. She had a brother who was an awful lot like him. She would try to understand him and to help me understand him.

Marla is very positive in her thinking. I might go to her and complain that David did this and I'll have made my mind up why he did it. My explanation will be pretty negative and angry. She'll listen and say, "Maybe he did it because of. . .," and her explanation will be something I never even considered. It's something else for me to think about, and it makes my anger subside.

Emotion work evoking empathy can be followed by situation-changing marriage work. Lynn described how Donna helped her empathize with her husband so that Lynn could improve relations between him and her daughters by a former marriage: "There would be times I'm thinking, 'Poor me, I can't take this,' and blaming it all on Jerry. And Donna will remind me, 'Well, you know, he's never had any children. You have to. . ..' And my feelings about it will really change. . .. I can help them work it out."

Generating empathy to subdue anger or frustration is an ex-


ample of what Hochschild calls a "frame change," a recodification of a situation that brings (or frees one to adopt) an appropriate emotional response.[4] As women recounted these frame changes, their voices carried awe and appreciation for a friend who moved them through unyielding anger and negativity to affection and hope and set them on a calmer, problem-solving course.

A similar but not identical frame-changing strategy is ennobling the adversary. The pacifying change in perspective occurs here when a friend reveals some brilliant facets of what until then appeared to be a rough, heavy stone.

A lot of time I just looked at the negative. I'd compare Gary to the other husbands. And when you look at someone else's husband, you just see the good side, not the bad one. Jan will point out to me, "You know Gary helps with the dishes"—or does this or that—"and Eddie never does." I'd start to think, "Gee, I really am lucky he does that. He's not all bad."

Occasionally, my friends will say something about Jeff that puts him in a different light and makes me appreciate him more. He impresses people in certain ways that I forget about because I live with it. Like someone will mention something he said that went right past me. And I'll think, "That's kind of nice."

Doreen tells me, "Jesse loves you." And he's this and he's that. She tells me his fine points and puts me in good spirits about him.

Humor is another frame-changing strategy that friends encouraged. A joke, usually self-deprecating, would make a noxious situation seem benign. Humor can instantaneously alter the frame and dissipate unwelcome emotions. "Sometimes when you've talked about something you've been upset about, you feel ridiculous being so upset. I'll just have to laugh. Just by laughing with me, friends have helped me not to worry."

Probing the emotions themselves can change them. This is a direct emotion-changing rather than frame-changing strategy. Anger, jealousy, shame, and other negative feelings are legitimate and acceptable to friends, women reported. These emotions can be expressed before close friends, their roots can be explored, and they can be worked over in cooperative reflection. Rita offered an example:


Sometimes, if I'm caught up in some emotions about an issue with Lloyd, I don't feel comfortable being there—in that state—right then. I feel a little shame, a little embarrassment. But by talking about it with June, I can bring it out and look at it. Then I don't feel so weird.

I'll even talk a bit about the shame or embarrassment. June's usually a little surprised, because she sees anger, and that sort of feeling, as very common. This just airs it out a little, and then I feel I can take care of it.

All the women without exception said they talked with friends about feelings of anger. Most of the time, the aim of these discussions was explicitly to defuse anger or other volatile emotions. But their method was not simply to suppress emotion. As Rita indicated above, working over emotion with friends enabled women first to express the emotion.

Using anger, we can study how women work over emotion with each another. A friend is not the object of the anger, so she can more easily sympathize, perhaps empathize, even collude: "If I say he's a son of a bitch, Loretta will say, 'You're darn right he is!'" Expressing the anger to an intimate who is not its object permits a woman to experience her feelings without escalating conflict or using strategies she might ultimately regret. Such an exchange empowers her by affirming her interpretation of reality. Its expression feels "safe" because it protects an emotion (and also affirms emotionality) and because it defuses further conflict with the spouse. "I told Gwen, 'I'm not going to take this stuff. I'm going to let him have it!' But when I talked it out with her, it took some of the stress out of it. Whew!"

I heard many examples of collective emotion management in accounts of discussion of marriage among friends. Friend helped friend to suppress unwelcome emotion and evoke desirable emotion for responding to problems in their marriages. Throughout this chapter, I explore these exchanges among friends to interpret the "conventions of feeling" and the conventions of framing marital encounters that emerged in my interviews.[5] The material just reviewed suggests that conducting emotion work with friends helps women to manage emotions within a context that allows them to acknowledge original feeling but to manage it so as to sustain their marriage commitment. There is a paradox here that this chapter also explores.


Situation Management

In the accounts I heard, "talking it out" with a friend almost always resulted in taking the edge off volatile emotion. Women wished to gain the emotional quiet to find constructive solutions to marital conflict. Friends joined them—oftentimes led them—in that search to explore strategies for changing their situation: "A few times I was ready to blow up, and after talking about it, I was able to quiet down and have the chance to look at things differently. And I said to myself, 'Maybe I don't have to act the way I've been acting.'"

I use the term situation management to refer to marriage work oriented to the world external to oneself. Talking with friends, women analyze marital situations and decide upon actions to change them. Often the adopted course is to talk over the problem with the mate. Thirteen of seventeen women reported such conferences, whose strategic advantages are suggested in these accounts:

Talking about the problem with June gives me a chance to sift through the issues and feelings and get to what I want to talk about with Lloyd.

Sometimes, I may be trying to get him to do something. I might talk first to Marla or my mom or Sue, because I may be mad about it and I don't want to come home and blurt it out. I figure there may be an easier way to do this than arguments. One of them might help me come up with a better alternative to yelling.

Friends sometimes related their own solutions to marital problems:

George and I were always fighting about household responsibilities and getting nowhere. I'd ask friends, "How does your husband feel? How do you divide up responsibilities?"

Catherine is in a very "like" marriage, so her solutions are especially helpful.

Or they joined in surveying alternative solutions.

Loretta will say, "Let's see, what are your options here? What if you tried this . . . or what if you said that . . . ? Rather than just being supportive, she'll be objective and say, "How do you think you can do that differently?"


I told her, "You should talk to him about it. Let him know what you think. Or you could go out at ten at night and see how he likes it."

Sometimes Sally just can't see the alternatives. I'll just state them as I see them, if I can be constructive.

Ultimately, friends might give explicit direction; the few women who reported receiving such firm advice seemed to appreciate it.

She says, "Just be straight with him—it's going to be all right ."

Annette will say, "You've got to be more open and talk to Mike." Or, "Show more affection." She'll tell me to put more effort in specific areas.

Once after a big one, I left and went to stay with my sister. Lily called and said, "Janine, come on home. Your husband loves you. Don't do him that way."

Often, but not always, firm direction was an asymmetric exchange in a friendship with a mother-figure. Firm direction from actual mothers, however, was resented. The general symmetry and mutuality of friendships, even those with mother-daughter themes, admitted the strong advice that daughters had experienced as an intrusion when it occurred in real mother-daughter relationships.

Accommodative and Influence-oriented Marriage Work

These examples of marriage work illustrate a clear trend in the reports: with the help of friends, women solved marital conflicts by capitulation or adaptation. They used strategies of assertion, manipulation, and resistance far less frequently. Even Rita, who enthusiastically described how Loretta concurred that her husband was a "son of a bitch," continued with an account of her friend's more pacifying advice. Loretta supported Rita's ultimate aim of relieving herself of anger, rather than honing it as a weapon for marital combat.

Only a few times, in fact, did any answers recount discussions with friends aimed at sharpening or focusing anger to sustain or win a conflict. The first was Nancy, who spoke appreciatively of how talks with Helen strengthened her determination to impress Mike that "I'm a person too": "There's times I do rebel. I'll say, 'I'm not going to do such and such because I've talked to my girlfriends


and we've agreed about it. They wouldn't do it either.' In talking to friends you can be reassured that you're right about things."

A second, more dramatic, account of close friends' reinforcing angry resistance was provided by Cass, who described how her family—who were her closest friends—helped her "throw out" her physically abusive husband:

I'd packed up and moved out and gone to their house a lot of times. . .. I wouldn't say they tried to talk me into feeling worse about him, because nobody could have felt worse about him than I did. But I knew they were in favor of getting rid of him.

One night he was ticked off about something and he went to bed. I went out for a bit, but when I got back he wasn't as asleep as I thought he was. He proceeded to go, Pow, pow, pow. I got my family; and my mother stuck a gun in him and told him to hit the road and he did. I was ready for him to go.

Although only a few women collaborated in angry resistance, others worked together in strategizing advantage and more subtle resistance to domination. Recall, for example, Karen's description of an unobtrusive power play that involved figuring out how to get David to cooperate with her plans: "I figure there may be an easier way to do this than arguments." She claimed her friends' cool-headed collective strategizing was often effective. Similarly, Janine described an occasion when Lily advised her to change her tactics to gain her husband's consent to a visit to faraway kin: "Lily said, 'Don't go getting into any more big hassles over it. Just wait a bit. He's not ready for it now. Go home and apologize. You'll be able to go.' So, I did that, and sure enough. . .." Recall also how, in the last chapter, Jean characterized the discussion among a group of close friends scheduling their next get-together—each previewing her bargaining strategy for getting an evening off.

In Louise's case, consulting with Jan yielded useful strategies for asserting her needs to her oftentimes domineering husband. Louise herself believed, though, that what empowered her to change a lot that was wrong in her marriage was the fact of having a close friend. "Gary's had to learn to make some compromises. Before Jan and I were friends, I did all the compromising. It seems like it's kind of switching right now." In the early years of marriage,


Louise maintained, Gary's jealousy impelled her to detach from independent friendships. He sustained friendships, though; and the couple socialized with his friends and their wives. Louise continued: "I think it benefited him all around. He'd never admit that he loved it that way, but it's the truth. I sat home and took care of the house and had the dinner ready and the wash done. I was on top of things because I didn't have anything else to do."

Now, with both the shared activity of her new friendship with Jan and the independent projects Jan encouraged Louise to begin, Louise is less the perfect housewife she once was: "He used to feel sorry for his friend who complained he never had any clean underwear. Now, he'll come around saying, 'How do you work the washing machine? There's no underwear in my drawer again.'" Gary responded to Louise's ardent new friendship with considerable resentment. But Jan's importance to her fortified Louise to "work on" rather than appease her husband's jealousy. She believed that she and Gary were now steadily working out a resolution of marriage problems on much improved terms for her.

Although Cass had no regrets at having dealt so forcefully with her abusive husband, the subtler and more manipulative marital strategizing was the preferred method for the others. Nancy, who recounted how friends help her firmly stand her ground, analyzed its ambivalent legacy:

Men, in general, will walk over you unless you stand up to them. In talking to women, you can be reassured you're fight to stand up. But it doesn't necessarily make things go smoothly. Friends can make you think a lot about the way things really are. But often you feel you're contradicting the way you've been brought up. You're not necessarily making your marriage work easier.

Nancy is forty, a housewife married to a hardworking small-businessman, and the mother of two teenagers. She described her husband as a "good friend" and her marriage as solid. Yet her marriage was more peaceable before she began to "think a lot about the way things really are." She and a few of her friends welcomed many of the egalitarian ideas that they had recently encountered and were at times exhilarated by their attempts to assert their own needs after many years of perceived self-sacrifice for family. But Nancy


and some others I spoke to were not of one mind about these new ideas about women. Reflecting upon the mix of assertion with older, deep-rooted values can be painfully confusing.

Perhaps more troubling to Nancy than conflict of values or guilt was the discovery that an assertive or conflictive stance could be perilous. Taking combative stances after confirmatory discussions with friends, Nancy and others found they provoked husbands' rage and triggered a level of conflict they had not anticipated. Sometimes they found themselves experiencing an anger for which old tactics of emotion work no longer felt legitimate.

Most friends still helped Nancy to empathize with Mike or told her to "try harder." Yet even the maternal neighbor to whom Nancy turned anticipating the most accommodative advice, didn't "reach" her the way she used to. Increasingly, Nancy refrained from undertaking the emotion work Hochschild calls the "generous . . . self-persuasion [of] deep acting" in which an individual invests energy in trying to serve another's interests more and better than one's own.[6] Instead, she engaged in a more pragmatic overt adjustment. In this kind of collective marriage work, friends reminded each other how tough it is to survive outside the marriage, particularly for women of their age and their level of marketable skills. And then they used humor and "laugh[ed] at the ridiculousness of the whole thing."

This is marriage work, no doubt, and it is unquestionably accommodative. But it involves less profound emotion management than radical reframing does. Troubling vistas remain in the picture. By accommodating instrumentally, without renouncing either emotions or analysis of the situation, one challenges an authoritative ideology of wifely deference.

Seen in this light, emotion work (which reframes feeling and self-concept) shores up an ideology of female subordination, whereas lax emotion management (which rejects that strategy) challenges the ideology. The picture is the same, even when the outcome is accommodation.[7] I discuss below how collective marriage work can use pragmatic accommodation to resist subordination in marriage. Nonetheless, it is obvious why Nancy cautioned, in the epilogue to this energetic account of how friends participate in assertive marriage work: you don't necessarily make marriage go more smoothly that way.


Nancy thus provides clues to why accommodation might characterize the more pervasive forms of marriage work. In contrast to assertive situation management, the self-focused strategies require only one's own commitment to change rather than a husband's. These accommodative strategies do not risk incurring the recalcitrance, hostility, or resentment of another person, as do the strategies of talking it out, manipulating, or battling. In fact, emotion work may resolve a problem without even arousing a spouse's suspicion that a problem exists. Even though capitulation or adaptation may require the expenditure of voluminous resources of will, intelligence, imagination, and energy, these are resources that the relatively powerless retain at their disposal (depending more or less upon their level of subjection). This use of resources may be costly to women, given the alternate uses of these resources; but when marriage work is a primary goal, such choices seem logical enough.

Many scholars have observed the superior "emotional skills" women acquire to compensate for the material power and social privilege of men—or, alternatively, to equilibrate family life by functional specialization.[8] Their emotional skills include greater interpersonal observational acuity ("sensitivity"), faster interpersonal inductive calculation ("intuition"), more practiced indirect influence strategies ("feminine wiles," "maternal style"), and so on. Women may actively apply all of them to influencing others. Yet when the stakes are high—as they are in many marital conflicts— a woman may use more precise calculation of outcome and assume less risk by applying these skills to herself. Unlike outright and explicit capitulation, emotion work offers a reward beyond preserving marriage: a woman achieves an "improved" feeling about the situation, known in sociology of the family as "marital satisfaction."

In The Future of Marriage, Jessie Bernard summarizes several decades of family research to show, on the one hand, that women often perceive more marital problems than men do while both men and women report that wives make more marital adjustments and, on the other hand, that women nonetheless very often report themselves satisfied with their marriages.[9] The concept of accommodative emotion work may help explain such findings, once we clarify the impetus to accommodate.


Can I rely on women's self-reports of accommodation? It is possible, of course, that women emphasized accommodative marriage work in their reports and deemphasized manipulative or combative strategies. Perhaps more aggressive marriage work is more stigmatized and thus underreported. But, given that women did not hesitate to report that they gossiped and shared stigmatized feelings—like jealousy—with friends, it seems probable that the accommodative bias does predominate.

All this may begin to explain why the twenty women who recalled changed attitudes or feelings about their husbands virtually all gave accommodative accounts. Responding to another set of questions, sixteen of twenty-one women could think of times friends specifically had "talked them into feeling better" about their husbands; encouraging empathy with or ennobling the husband were the predominant methods they reported. Nine could think of times when friends had "talked them into feeling worse" about their mates. But those who recalled negative persuasion said it had occurred rarely—far less often than positive strategies. Significantly, except for one woman who said that the friend who talked her into feeling worse about her husband "didn't really bother me" and another who said she liked it because "they are being supportive of my interests," the rest of the women uniformly disliked such negative exchanges.

It's never happened. I probably wouldn't tolerate it.

Sometimes Wanda is very negative about Hal. Like, "He'll never change," and, "Oh, what you're going through!" And she'll comment on some of the stupid things he'll do. It's true, you know, but she doesn't have to tell me. I really don't like her coming back at it, though, because she really doesn't know.

If there was anything she disapproved of, she never said so. She was very wise. She never interfered.

When Carol criticizes Tom for his gambling, I get a little angry: "How dare you? I never say anything about your husband." She just doesn't hold anything back. I don't like it, but I just tell myself she doesn't understand.

No, nobody ever tried it. She probably wouldn't be that close a friend if she did.


Several of the women just quoted had marital problems—a few, quite serious—that they talked about with their friends (the seven who replied that they had marital difficulties all discussed these problems with close friends). These women were especially likely to report that they found themselves defending mates they had just been complaining about.

I'll be complaining to Lily about Dwight being gone most of the time, out with the guys, and she'll say, "He shouldn't be leaving you alone so much.' I listen, but it just goes in one ear and out the other. I'd say I end up feeling more positive. Because she's telling me that and I'm defending him.

If anyone said anything against him, I'd say, "Well, it's not so bad." I might be really angry with him, but I'm real defensive as well.

Just before we got married, Marie would listen to my troubles and tell me I probably needed to find someone else. I didn't like that at all. When you complain to people, you really want them to find a solution for you. If they're negative, you start defending him.

Frances put it in classic terms: "I can call him a bastard, if I want to; but nobody else can."

The women who reported serious marriage problems and those who described their marriages as stable and untroubled all relied on friends to help build acceptance and optimism.

She makes me feel it's going to be all right. She reminds me that things take time.

If I'm down about him, they'd never down him too.

No more than "Stick it out. It'll blow over."

Sometimes I think she doesn't much care for him, but she's always encouraging.

They tell you you'll live through it, and you do.

A few times women reported feeling resentment that friends had not supported their assertiveness toward their husbands:

I think Margie has been uncomfortable with some of the changes in me. So, if I ever tell her about a conflict, she'll take his side. She's always afraid I'm going too far.


Paula took his side. Said I ought to stay home with the kids. She made me feel all the more guilty. I finally just quit the job. It was just too hard to defend it alone.

Rita and Kay are speaking above. Each believed she had changed in recent years, in ways some old friends could not understand or support. Both had enrolled in community college courses, seeking and finding new competencies in social and intellectual experiences. Both had explored ideas and opinions they had previously felt too timid to engage. They had also formed strong friendships with other "returning" women at school. Both of their closest friends were women they had met in school. For Rita and Kay and for other women I interviewed, the return to school meant disruptive shifts in marital power and sometimes long-lasting conflicts. (My sample reflects the educational opportunities that California's massive community college system has offered mature women; increasing numbers of working-class women have joined middle-class women in attending college classes.)

Like Nancy, whose "new ideas" questioning wifely submissiveness interfered with her typical practices of emotion work, Rita and Kay were less and less inclined to certain deferential forms of marriage work. They had acquired skills that translated into resources of marital power, and they had formed new friendship networks that circulated values favoring individual achievement and marital assertion as well as information about jobs and support for personal change. Rita and Kay could risk somewhat less deferential marriage work; they resented pressures from old friends to defer. Likewise, Thea's higher-income occupation and egalitarian ideals freed her to profess her dissatisfaction with friends' attempts to talk her into feeling less critical of her husband's faults; she could view friends' criticisms of him as supportive of her. Nevertheless, the accommodative balance of my responses reflects a sample that is not weighted toward the small privileged sector of American women.

Considering the moral rights and obligations of friendship, most women I spoke to felt a friend might appropriately criticize a friend's husband. Eighteen of twenty-one (and the same proportion of the married women) answered at least "Sometimes" to the question of whether friends had a right to do so. They believed in self-


restraint, though. The hypothetical situations they suggested as warranting criticism were ones in which the wife suffered physical or psychological abuse. These extreme circumstances are of course, the most likely to come to mind. But the women's answers also reflected a respect for the moral autonomy of their friends.

I'd ask myself, "How does she see it?" You don't have a right to create a situation that doesn't exist.

Unless it's something like abuse, I'd let her open the conversation.

If the situation was so extreme and the person was so blind, [I would say something]. I would hope I wouldn't otherwise, though. Really.

They advocated a nonjudgmental and uncoercive delivery of criticism, so that the friend who received it would maintain her integrity. "You've got to do it carefully, not judging, not telling her what to do." Another explained, "I might say, 'If it were me, I think I would. . ..'"

In sum, women talked about marriage problems with friends to be able to think aloud; to let off steam; to reassess their perceptions and dissatisfactions; to plan communication with spouses; to reestablish empathy and appreciation for spouses; to effect changes in their own behavior, attitudes, and emotions; and to figure out how to change their husbands. From the accounts I heard, it appears that these women used marriage work to solidify and reinforce their own commitments to their marriages far more than to change their marriages to satisfy their own needs and wants. In a number of different ways, they expressed a desire that friends help them "work things out" in their minds. Presumably, marriage work could have the opposite effect. Women could ask for, and receive support for, more uncompromising stances in marital conflicts. Even in a society whose dominant expectation of wives is accommodation, friendships could form countercultural resistance. My general observation and a few segments of my interviews indicate that they sometimes do.

Thus, as I discuss the character and impact of marriage work, I must not repeat the error of network theorists who causally link the structure of friendship patterns to the content of normative exchange. This kind of mistake appears, for example, in the work of Elizabeth Bott. In her pioneering study of family and social net-


work, Bott assumed the structure of a family's social network causes the marital role division, overlooking the variable practices a close-knit network might enforce in other circumstances (in an egalitarian kibbutz, for example).[10] In order to explain why their marriage work with friends is predominantly accommodative, we must understand the circumstances under which women seek or consent to this particular normative exchange. Once we have analyzed the aims of their marriage work, we will be better positioned to appreciate the impact of its collective form.

Why Marriage Work Reinforces Commitment to Marriage

I propose both structural and cultural explanations for the way women's marriage work reinforces their commitments to marriage. To begin with the structural factors, which appear to be at once simpler and more determinative, women reinforce each other's commitment because they are dependent upon marriage for survival or mobility.

Despite the fact that women increasingly work for pay, their salaries, relative to men's, have remained depressed over several decades. This fact means that marriage is still the best means of economic mobility for women. The median earnings of full-time working women are much closer to the poverty line than to the line of median family income.[11] For unemployed or low-income women, marriage might be the only decent avenue of survival; public assistance, varying by state, in no state awards even a poverty-level income. Nearly half of all female-headed families live below the federally established (and some argue, unreasonably low) poverty line. And poverty is much greater among minority women: in 1983, 63 percent of families headed by black women lived in poverty.[12] Moreover, in three out of ten impoverished female-headed households, the mother is employed. The employment ghetto of "women's jobs" and the fastest growing sectors of the employment market feature jobs with low wages, few or no crucial benefits, and short ladders of advancement (increasing numbers are part-time as well)—all conditions that are adding large numbers of women to the ranks of the working poor.[13]

Thus, for virtually all women, leaving a marriage—or being


left—means economic hardship. Half of divorced mothers do not receive the child support awarded to them, studies project; and the average yearly payment to those who do is around $2,000.[14] (These figures exclude, of course, the four of ten single mothers who are awarded no child support at all.) To the women I interviewed the gist of these facts is apparent. Many women are in age groups for which nearly haft of all marriages end in divorce. Most have kin or friends who are divorced; and they see their situations clearly. A majority of women stated flatly that their biggest problem if their marriage ended would be economic survival. Several spontaneously mentioned the "lessons" they learned watching divorced friends manage. Only the divorced women, not the married ones, could see anything other than disadvantages in going it alone.

As heads of families and as friends, women experience the economic liabilities of gender. A woman might offer a divorcing friend emotional support, advice, a certain amount of daytime child care, and the like, but probably not money, room, or board. The most violent account of a husband's resentment of his wife's friendship involved an offer of temporary shelter to a divorcing friend. "She had left her husband and needed a place to stay for awhile. . .. Maybe she was intruding, but all I could think of was I was glad I was there. . .. He said she was breaking up our marriage, and he literally threw her out of the house. . .. It was my first bad experience with my husband. . .. She never came out here again."

A friend might offer information about how to apply for welfare aid, or she might have contacts at her own workplace who can get her friend a job; but whatever important role a woman plays for a friend whose marriage is dissolving, that role is not likely to in-elude economic support. Women are likely to see marriage as the most certain source of economic security for themselves and for their friends.

The economic liabilities of gender might explain why women recommend marriage to their friends, but why do they reinforce commitments to existing marriages? Why don't women simply ratify the statistical trend toward serial monogamy and urge a friend with marital problems to try again and better luck next time? My respondents suggested that women surveyed the options available to themselves and their friends and concluded that the prospects


were grim for better luck next time. Nancy summarized it quite plainly: "When I've just about had it, Annette will say, 'Stick it out, 'cause it could be a whole lot worse.' With all my friends, we look at how bad things could be. They just remind me, 'Hey, look around. . ..'"

Besides their economic options, Nancy and her friends look around at the marriage-market opportunities divorced women encounter. Divorcing young is not very damaging to women's chances of remarrying. Once they are in their thirties, however, women are less likely than men to remarry; and they take longer to do so. With increasing age at divorce, their remarriage opportunities drop drastically, compared to men's.[15] (Recall that the largest part of my sample was over thirty.) Since men tend to remarry much younger women, the years women have spent in a marriage subtract directly from their chances of remarriage. But women do not need statistics to assess the situation. Again, divorced friends and kin are poignant evidence that divorced women have no easy time of it. "I have girlfriends who are back out in the single world. I don't think I could take it." I suggest that these structured opportunities influence the algebra of marriage work among friends, weighting it toward making peace with existing circumstances.

The cultural factors shaping the content of marriage work are, on the one hand, too obvious and, on the other, too complex to review in detail. Suffice it to say that religion, secular philosophy, marriage counseling, and popular culture still elevate lifelong commitment and fidelity, in spite of the phenomenal growth in divorce. These cultural prescriptions apply to men as well as women, of course; but the gender structure of cultural production and consumption shapes the character and impact of these prescriptions. Quite simply, women are more extensively and more frequently exposed to these culture shapers. Because they are more religiously active than men and larger consumers of services, literature, and media dealing with marriage and family, women are often explicitly the audiences for whom the cultural messages are created.

The effects of this arrangement flow in both directions. Social-relations reformers must appeal to the desires or interests of women if they wish to build an audience and influence the behavior of women or men. Even themes of "male revolt" from marital


commitment, like those Barbara Ehrenreich identified in the ideas of the human potential movement,[16] were transformed and harnessed to themes of marital struggle and redemption in the larger bulk of popular culture represented by marriage counseling and women's magazines.

Cultural messages about the best interests of children may also influence marriage work in favor of commitment. Yet my interviews showed women so acutely aware of the social privileges of children in two-parent versus single-parent families that their own independent assessments seemed to shape their behavior much more than cultural messages did. Children's evident material and emotional suffering in divorce and women's identification with the needs of children are enough to reinforce women's commitment to stability in marriage. I suspect that the popular transliterations of expert theory, which continue to link adequate nurture with female nature and adequate authority with male nature, operate more on alternate visions of the distant future than on considerations in the present. Women do not need to believe that women alone nurture children to know that if they do not nurture their children, no one else will.

I propose that these structural and cultural arrangements form an interest in stable marriage. The ethics of motherhood and marital fidelity, where marriage is a precondition of economic well-being for women and their children, create an interest in stable marriage that is greater for women than men. Further, this interest favors a moral order that appears to be eroding. To attempt to save other marriages by reinforcing one's highest commitment to stability is to attempt to shore up the cultural base of one's own marriage. If stable marriage is crucial to women's perceptions of survival or well-being, one of the few ways they can deny alternatives to men is to discourage them to other women.

Men's strongest interest in stable (as opposed to serial) marriage is their attachment to wives and children. In the wildfire spread of "fascinating womanhood" seminars, "fathering" workshops, and "marriage communication" theology, we can see how quickly women seize upon plausible means of increasing male attachments (and husbands' participation in the curriculum). Similarly, in the considerable female opposition to feminist and civil libertarian reforms like abortion rights and the ERA, we can see how dearly


many women hold their interest in a moral order that disallows others' choices for an easy exit from marriage.[17]

What of the valuation of individual aspiration and autonomy that the last chapter showed to be characteristic of women's culture of friendship? Friends clearly draw upon these values in encouraging the expression of feelings and in collective strategizing for marital influence. Still, they more strongly emphasize individuality in treating other matters. In treating problems in marriage, they stress communal responsibility.

Do Husbands Do Marriage Work with Friends?

Moving from the social forms that shape marriage work among women friends to the impact of this collaboration on marriages, we must consider the marriage work of husbands as well. I cannot use the self-description I gathered in interviews with women to inspect men's close friendships. I can, however, interpret wives' statements about husbands' friendships, using the findings of other research on the topic. The similarities and parallels in these two sources of information constitute evidence that is reliable if I use it with care.

All but one of the married women I interviewed believed they talked personally with their friends more than their husbands did (Mary said, "I don't know what he does"). Although several women admired the strength and durability of the bonds between their husbands and their close friends, none of them believed that their husbands talked very intimately with their men friends about marital problems or anything else.

I don't think men pour out their emotional feelings to each other. When Jack does, it's to me.

Even though he's best friends with Frank, he's told me he can't talk to him about everything. They don't have an intimate relationship.

I feel better if I talk about stuff with my friend, but he's the other way: you keep your problems right here—you don't discuss them with anyone else.

Two-thirds of the married women also believed their husbands found it generally less easy to ask for friends' help.

The women I spoke to thought their husbands' friendships re-


flected those of most men. In answering questions about how men and women generally behave with friends, all but one or two women agreed that women turned more often to friends to talk about personal problems and that women talked more to friends about personal feelings and private details of theft marriages (one or two said, "No difference"). According to their accounts, the vitality of men's close friendships lies elsewhere—in sociable camaraderie, loyalty, and generosity.

The wives' analyses corroborate other studies of men's friendships. An array of studies report that in comparison with women, men are less emotionally expressive, less empathetic, disclose less on intimate topics, and they have fewer friendships of intimacy and emotional exchange.[18] Fischer and Phillips found that, in general, men and women had equal numbers of friends in whom they confided but that men were more likely to have no one besides a spouse to confide in. My research suggests that surveys should specify the contents of personal confidences, since men and women might differ in what they consider "personal talk." Work by Reis, Senchak, and Solomon indicates such a gender difference.[19]

In many ways, the wives offered analyses of male friendships that seem more nuanced than those of social scientists, who collapse notions of intimacy, attachment, dependence, love, and loyalty into concepts like intimacy and self-disclosure. The women I talked to were quite certain that their husbands talked personally with their close friends less than they themselves did, but they varied in their assessments of their husbands' dependence, attachment, or loyalty to close friends: "I think he feels just as close to his friends as I do [to mine]. We just need them in a different way." Another, contrasting view: "They're close friends, but they're not intimately involved in each other's lives. Still, there's a permanence about his friendships that I don't feel even with my closest friends."

Since other research so strongly supports the women's descriptions of the intimacy of husbands' friendships, let us assume, for the moment, that the women noted facts—that their husbands are far less intimate with close friends. What, then, are the implications for our understanding of friendship and marriage work? It is tempting to speculate that marriage work is primarily women's work—that men and women contribute unequally to marital problem solving, compromise, and conflict resolution.


Tempting or not, the speculation on marriage work must wait: I have to answer other questions. How much marriage work do husbands and wives accomplish together, how much alone? Are there patterned gender differences in perception and emotion work that lead to accommodation, compromise, or capitulation? I cannot fully answer these questions. But there is research that bears on some of them. Bernard cites studies on women's greater adaptation in marriage; others report women more likely to perceive problems in marriage.[20] Certainly, if one does not perceive problems one cannot address them.

This much we can state with certainty: the marital problem solving and emotion management women and men do is asymmetric. My research offers preliminary evidence that the marriage work of women is considerably more socialized than that of men. Women are much more likely to undertake marriage work collectively, thinking, feeling, and deciding in dialogue with others. Assuming—only for purposes of argument—that men contribute quantitatively similar resources and energies to these matters, what kinds of qualitative differences in their contributions are likely to result from their private, as opposed to collective, methods?

The Concomitants of Collective Marriage Work

Inevitably, when another person helps work out a personal problem, the work is not idiosyncratic or unmediated; the contribution shows. In short, problem solving and emotion work are subject to social control. Collective marriage work reinforces possibly latent but nonetheless influential values that are in theory variable. In my interviews, however, they varied little. Women reported that they sought accommodative marriage work with friends or met it regardless of their wishes. They did not describe this patterned influence as social control, however. Their language rarely evoked the quality of constraint. They called the influence "objective" or "unbiased," as did Rita and Karen, who stated without irony: "She'll be objective and say, 'How do you think you can do that differently?'" and, "Friends help you become more objective and accepting of how they [husbands] are."

When the women used terms like "objective" and "unbiased,"


they meant the advice was impartial, disinterested, not swayed by emotions. Yet most admitted that criticism of their mate, disinterested or otherwise, was unacceptable. The meaning of "objective" that is implicit in their examples is "determined by and oriented to a goal or object," the object being to keep commitment to marriage.

A friend's bias, then, turns not on favoring the interests of one partner or the other but on favoring individual needs and interests over fidelity to marriage. If we assume that in marriage work the goal of preserving a marriage and commitment to it overarches the goal of working out marital solutions that fit the needs of the individuals involved, then the discussions of marriage women reported were objective indeed. We need to evaluate the effect of this particular collaborative marriage work and then suggest different effects that marriage work might have in an alternate ideology or situation.

To appreciate the varied meanings of "objective" marriage work in the lives of different women, compare these three accounts. In chapter 2, Nancy described how Annette helped her work on her jealousy of her son's girlfriend. Annette found Nancy's jealousy understandable (she had sons of her own) but inappropriate, so she helped Nancy plan how to act in a way that reduced the jealousy. Confiding these uncomfortable feelings to Annette and allowing Annette to help her manage them, Nancy relieved undesirable emotion. And she found a strategy for handling residual feelings to avoid undesirable reactions, including her husband's disapproval.

In the second account, also introduced in chapter 2, Sally empathized with Arlene's periodic despair that everything her husband did was irritating; but Sally told her outright that this generalized fury was "ridiculous . . . you'll survive." Arlene told this story with amused appreciation and the conviction that her own current sense of contentment with her marriage proved her friend right.

In the third story, Mary told how, when she considered leaving Hal, Vera discouraged her by recounting the loneliness of a past separation of her own. "She tells me how she's been through the same thing and gotten herself out of it. She points out why Hal is doing these things, why I should understand him more and try to make a go of it."


In each example the friend's "unbiased" mediation moved the woman to a more "objective" state of mind or behavior. But the personal cost of her objectivity was different in each case. The first mediation tempered a mother's response that was irrational within a system where children marry outside their family. Following the dictates of jealousy promised Nancy nothing in either personal well-being or improved family relations. The second situation is more ambiguous, at least excerpted from context. Did Sally's exchange with Arlene simply intervene in an emotional eruption— the stuff of daily life in intimate relations—or did it subvert a charged but salutary attempt to insert long-denied personal needs into marriage bargaining? Arlene seemed firmly convinced that it was the former. She felt she had made her peace with the uncommunicativeness of her husband and wished to sustain this peace on the occasions when emotions eclipsed her reasons for the adjustment.

The last example is even more ambiguous. A few times in the past Mary had clutched at a last straw. She could no longer abide her husband's drinking and the chronic marital antagonism it created. Her job was secure; her son had grown and left home; she felt she no longer loved her husband; and she suffered daily anger, regret, and despondence. But Vera's objective mediation pressed Mary to endure, regardless of circumstances. Mary preferred to have a man in her life and knew the odds against a woman her age; how would she even try to find another? Vera's concern unquestionably spoke to one side of Mary's ambivalence. So Mary recounted this collaborative marriage work as appreciatively as she could. In her voice was not so much doubt as a weary wish not to think about it further.

Contrast the mediations already described with this one. Lee, a young, unencumbered single woman, described how her best friend, also young and single, helped her leave a relationship she was not at all sure she really wished to end.

I was choosing to leave a man who I absolutely adored. I said, "Look, I'm trying to leave him and I can't." She came and packed me up and moved me out of the apartment. She put me up, she made me tea, special meals. She'd take me out for walks and point things out. And when I wouldn't see them, she'd turn my head. It was the greatest help I've ever had from anybody.


Our earlier discussion of reasons for accommodative marriage work should indicate why the stories of young, single, childless women depart so sharply from the others. Indeed, women in one or more of these categories were more likely to have a friend discourage accommodation, criticize her partner, or strongly advocate individual self-interest over obligation to a relationship. This last mediation, Mary's story, and the following accounts of divorced women should establish that in collaborative marriage work friends do not simply discover and support a woman's basic intent, to stay married or move toward divorce. "Divorce work" emerged as a very different process in the friendships of the women I interviewed.

Divorced respondents told of support and sacrifice by friends after their marriages ended. Close friends were as dedicated to helping women "work out" their divorces as they had been to helping them "work out" their marriages. But none said she had been told "He's the wrong person, anyhow" before the decision, only afterward. "I know my friends would support me if I did go. But I've never heard any of them say, 'Go, he deserves it,' or, 'How can you put up with it?' and that sort of thing." Only two of the six ever-divorced women I interviewed identified themselves as the one who left the marriage; all of them claimed to have been very unhappy before divorce. Yet only Cass, who described how family members took a gun and chased out her abusive husband, received support for abandoning a marriage. Each of the others said friends responded with support for divorce only after her husband left or, in Lynn's case, after she firmly decided to leave.

Hilda divorced in an era when, she said, friends showed more reserve in talking about marital problems. She remembered her surprise when one friend came forward to confide the grave marital difficulties the friend had weathered and to persuade Hilda to try to do so as well. After she divorced, many friends helped her and her children. But not even witnesses to her husband's abuse had encouraged thoughts of divorce.

Help along the course of her decision to leave a relationship rarely appeared in the accounts of the women I interviewed—not just divorced women, but my entire sample. The exceptions involved Lee, the young, single woman; Cass, whose family gave material support throughout her marriage and finally rescued her


from battery; and married women who recalled events from their youth. I would expect a larger study to reveal subtle variations in this pattern of response to evaluations of a friend's resources of survival. Here, support for divorce was primarily a post-divorce phenomenon. Marriage work was prescribed until divorce work became unavoidable.

For emotion management and marital recommitment, two heads are likely to be better than one; our examples illustrate the point. Collaborative marriage work is efficient as well as effective, although it is labor-intensive. Arlene explained why'. "Had I spent some time thinking about it, I might have come to the same conclusion on my own. But she was there when I was still angry about it and not yet heading in the right direction. She helped me resolve that problem a lot quicker than I'd have done if I was doing it on my own."

Now that divorce is widespread, its threat hangs over marital conflicts as never before; the speed with which conflicts are resolved can be critical. Will this fight be the last straw; and if so, whose? Anger is especially resistant to deft emotion work, particularly when the only other person involved is one's combatant. Collectivizing marriage work is a particularly effective way of speeding up conflict resolution (if such is its aim). Further, its labor-intensiveness may not detract from its efficiency. By defusing conflict, collaborative marriage work may spare husband and wife the greater effort of repairing relations that deteriorate when there is no "objective" mediation.

It is evident that collaborative marriage work does something more than filter idiosyncratic or momentary emotional reaction. It allows (although it does not cause) a patterned injection of socially approved interpretations and responses. In the majority of instances reported, collective marriage work reinforced accommodation and recommitment to the marriage; "objectivity" replaced unreconstructive response to conflict. This objectivity generally casts a friend's (cold) eye on the sentiment and behavior that threaten to escalate marital conflict; it fatalistically views a woman's current situation as her best option. Even when stability in marriage is the utmost value, however, socialized marriage work assembles a curriculum of strategies that amplify the powers of the weak and that a different set of circumstances might transmute into a culture of resistance.


If, explaining why women want to remain in their marriages, I have argued well, I may have provoked a question about the causal efficacy of friends' marriage work in stabilizing marriage commitment. If women find ample reasons to stay in marriages, in what way is socialized marriage work crucial?

I think that collective marriage work operates most directly on the feelings and values of commitment rather than its logic. Women may adapt instrumentally (with calculation) because they perceive doing so is their safest or most reasonable alternative and yet not feel either satisfied or morally right. Collective marriage work often helps the cognitive process of commitment, but it probably operates with more independent effect on emotion and belief. Since larger structural and cultural forces may very well account for much of women's accommodation in marriage, collective marriage work contributes more to emotional and moral commitments, strengthening bonds that instrumental accommodation simply attaches. It is in this way that marriage work with friends may appropriately be said to shape and solidify commitments to marriage.

Implications for Male Power and Authority in Marriage

These observations suggest questions about the relation of collective marriage work to marital power and authority, questions compelling enough to prompt speculation. Since marriage work, as I observed it, presses the wife toward compromise, it solidifies the position of the person who does not need to budge. Since marriage work consumes the wife's time and energy and occupies her intelligence, the husband's unconsumed resources remain at his disposal (to invest perhaps in social mobility and prestige or in further marital power plays). Since marriage work uses dominant social norms, it reinforces traditional or rationalized forms of male authority and power in the family.

Yet when socially structured opportunities (created, for example, by a high-paying job, youth and beauty, no dependents) or individual motivation (of an ideological commitment, perhaps) move a woman to demand—or find friends who offer—influence-oriented marriage work, the effects of friends' collaboration may be very different: she may fight and win; his authority may be undermined; and her marriage work itself may be an organized power


play. Although this pattern is not prevalent, for reasons discussed above, social changes some day may make it more widely applicable. In any case, it illustrates the double-edged quality and potential of women's patterns of intimate friendship.

Within the larger structure of gender power and authority, the prevalent pattern of marriage work has a parallel dynamic. Every exchange of marriage work among friends involves at least two women in a significant unfolding cultural exchange. One woman's act, a collectively generated accommodation or recommitment, entails the other's present moral consent and collaboration and obligates the woman to a future reciprocal exchange.

The resulting gender privileges go to the husband of the woman who acts and ultimately to the husbands of friends who participate in her decision. In this sense each husband benefits as an individual and as a member of a community of husbands—more abstractly, as a member of a gender-class. Private marital arguments resolved without the help of friends are influenced by a larger culture and structure of gender relations. Conflicts mediated by friends' marriage work, however, are more dynamically linked to a wide network that exchanges values legitimating male power and authority.

On this level, too, a contrasting process may unfold. Just as the individual example had a subversive version with transformative implications for the marriage, so this level has its countercultural version, heralding communal strategies of resistance to women's subordination in the family and in society. The extent to which women's friendship networks come to exchange the resources of resistance instead of adaptation depends on egalitarian change in women's economic and political position, and on arrangements to sustain families of women and children.

The women whom I interviewed talked about marriage problems with close friends. They did so, ultimately, to reinvigorate their own commitments to their marriages. Consulting with friends can give women help in changing their situations; they pool knowledge of influence and strategies; they implement their chosen courses with reason and confidence. In the accounts of the women I listened to, however, accommodative and self-changing strategies predominated. Women elicited—and their friends advocated—


marital strategies that posed less risk of escalating conflicts. In collective marriage work, women expressed anger and frustration; then they proceeded to rework their perceptions and feelings into more peaceable and adaptive modes.

Adaptive strategies are not the only modes of socialized marriage work: it has significant potential for communally supported resistance because it is a source of power that women have developed and men have not. Since men do not generally exchange intimate self-disclosure with friends, they lack this potentially vital communal exchange that women know.

And yet, without an intimate network that mediates conflicts in marriage, men are unlikely to engage in a communal discourse about responsibilities and commitments in marriage. They are socialized by more abstract and distant forces. To manage impulses, emotions, and perceptions in support of their marital commitment, husbands have only their mates to help them. Those who would establish in marriage a reign of aggressive impulse and will would encounter few communal sanctions. Regardless of its overt intent, the ethic of commitment in women friends' marriage work legitimates men's domestic authority; men's lack of a communal exchange bolsters their domestic power.


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