Conjugal Relationships 1

Conjugal Relationships 1

The functionalist account of the conjugal relationship presents a picture of a well-balanced couple, in which each partner has a specific set of mutually agreed and integrated tasks to perform. The basis for the division of labour is a combination of biology, psychology and economics, all of which combine to determine a couples activity. There is a clear division between the private sphere of home and family and the public sphere of work.


Since the late 1950's, this traditional account of the division of conjugal responsibilities has come under increasing criticism for two reasons:

1. Some commentators argue that it is quite simply factually incorrect, that conjugal relationships are changing. For some commentators, this is viewed in a positive light, others view the changes negatively. Others question whether the changes represent a 'change of heart by men' or whether they are just pragmatic easily reversible changes.

2. Others argue that the traditional description of the relationship is still factually accurate, but that it ought to be different. It's all a question of values.

The starting point for the present debate on changing relationships is Elizabeth Bott's work, Family and Social Networks (1957, revised 1971). Bott distinquishes between two polar types of conjugal role relationship, segregated and joint.

In the segregated case, men and women have a clear differentiation of tasks, and a considerable number of separate interests and activities. In the joint relationship, many tasks are carried out together with a minimum of task differentiation and separation of interests.

Bott noted that in all families, there was a basic division of labour in which the man was primarily responsible for supporting the family financially, and the woman was primarily responsible for housework and childcare. Her study is concerned with the 'considerable variation in detail' on this basic theme.

Like Bott, Wilmott and Young, Family and Kinship in East London (1957), takes for granted the traditional work-husband/home-wife division of labour. They trace the growth of a 'new kind of companionship between men and women, reflecting the rise in the status of the young wife and children which is one of the great transformations of our time'.

They claim that there has been, even among the working class, a shift to more joint types of conjugal relationships. If one then combines the associations of segregated-ancient/joint-modern, with working class-segregated/middle class-joint, it follows that the 20th century witnessed the progressive assimilation of working class couples to middle class styles of marriage/relationship.

Rosser and Harris, The Family and Social Change (1965) confirm Wilmott and Young's findings:

The husband is expected to help with the household chores, to stay at home or go out for the evening with his wife, to help with the children, to push the pram, to share the major family decisions. Our case studies of young married couples confirmed this marked change in the conjugal relationship and the marked contrast within the recent past.


This viewpoint sets the stage for the image of the family that emerges from Goldthorpe and Lockwood's study of the 'Affluent Worker'. In attempting to explain worker's industrial attitudes and behaviour, they refer to ongoing changes in working class life outside work - most notably, to changes within the family.

There is, however, a difficulty with the research just outlined - the assumption that the more a conjugal relationship is joint, the weaker is male dominance.

Is this the case?

At least in segregated sex roles, each partner was dominant in a particular role.

In marked contrast to the preceding research is Pahl's, Managers and their Wives (1971). It is clear that many of the wives experienced considerable dissatisfaction with their marital status, and the roles they were forced to play. On the other hand, belonging to a relatively favoured stratum of society, and having husbands that were often considerate and helpful they thought that they ought to be satisfied.

There are echoes, here, of Betty Friedan's 'problem with no name'. By this, Friedan meant an experience she had experienced herself, and found to be common among the college educated wives she met, that she and they felt unfulfilled. They had a college degree, a nice house, husband, child and car, but something was missing.

Wilmott and Young, The symmetrical Family (1973), introduces the concept of symmetry. Their argument is that nuclear family conjugal relationships were becoming symmetrical. They believe that a symmetrical arrangement will become more common.


However, there is evidence to suggest that at the managerial level hours of work are increasing, thus working against managers of either sex having a demanding domestic role. It should also be noted that determination to work among managerial wives is strongly related to educational level. The implication of this is that in lower income/education strata, wives work for money, not to enjoy a demanding public role.

In the circumstances, it does not seem reasonable to see a trend towards symmetry, let alone equality, and we are left with a retention, but also a blurring of the traditional divisions of labour, and unequal participation by each sex in the domain traditionally associated with the other.

The dual-career family has received some further attention. Rapoport et al, Dual-career Families Re-examined (1976). The significance of their work is to point to the difficulties faced by dual-career families.

They identify five sets of dilemmas:

  1. Problems of household maintenance.
  2. Normative conflicts mainly between the woman and her role audience.
  3. Problems of identity for both partners deriving from the contravention of gender norms.
  4. Being unable to fulfill demands of network members due to the pressure of work.
  5. Scheduelling the varying demands of work and family, so that they did not peak at the same time.

Two points emerge: First, that while the couples considered their pattern of marriage to have substantial benefits to the individual spouses, their children and their marriage, considerable skill was needed to resolve the five dilemmas. The second point is that in spite of their unconventionality, the wife's work was seen primarily in terms of benefit to her. It was all right with the husbands, so long as it did not interfere too much with their own needs.

Evidence to support the belief that outside work is good for a woman comes from J. Bernard, The Wife's Marriage (1982). Bernard argues that it's being a housewife rather than being married that contributes to the poor mental and emotional health of married women. She compared housewives, all of whom were presumed to be married, with working women, three-fifths of whom were also married. The comparison showed that wives who also have outside employment are relatively healthy.

Further evidence of the destructive effects of the occupation housewife is provided by the relative incidence of the symptoms of psychological distress among housewives and working women. In all except one of twelve such symptoms, the working wives were better off. Far fewer than expected of the working women, and more than expected of the housewives had actually had a nervous breakdown. The same was true of nervousness, inertia, insomnia, trembling hands, nightmares, perspiring hands, fainting, headaches, dizziness, and heart palpitations. In terms of the number of people involved, Bernard argues, the housewife syndrome might well be viewed a public health problem number one.

The view that conjugal relationships are becoming more symmetrical seems to be premised on two trends:

  1. That since more women now do paid work some sharing of household tasks is now the norm.
  2. The growth of technology is assumed to have removed drudgery from domestic work and saved time.

Are either of these trends real?

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