Things sure were different in our parents’ day, especially when it came to marriage dynamics. While we may not do marriage better than our moms and dads did, we can learn a lot from their relationship missteps. Check out these old-fashioned marriage philosophies, and discover why they could be damaging.
1. Women married young.
“Women were expected to get their MRS degree,” says LeslieBeth Wish, EdD, a Florida-based psychologist and licensed clinical social worker specializing in women’s issues. “Many parents worried or felt ashamed if their daughter left college without a ring on her finger.” Today, we don’t bat an eye at women who are still single into their 30s. “Research shows that the brain doesn’t reach full maturity until age 26,” says Dr. Wish. So it makes sense to wait to choose your mate.
2. The husband was the sole provider and the wife stayed home with the kids.
While it’s wonderful to care for a family, many women felt that traditional role limited them, says Fran Walfish, PsyD, a Beverly Hills–based psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “These unspoken feelings put undue stress on the marriage,” she explains, adding that once children left the nest, the woman was left without an identity. These days, women can stay at home, pursue a career or both. What’s key is that it’s her choice and she can switch roles at any time. “Having multiple roles—parent, spouse, worker, volunteer, hobbyist—fortifies confidence. If things aren’t going well in one area, other aspects in your life can make you feel positive,” says Dr. Wish.
3. There was less communication within the marriage, and therapy was a rarity.
People wanted to talk about their feelings, but they didn’t know how, says Dr. Wish. “There wasn’t a plethora of self-help books or a lot of social support,” she says. In fact, women felt more comfortable getting medicated to minimize problems than having a heart-to-heart with their husbands. And then they resented their partners for not being part of the cure, explains Dr. Wish. Seeking help through marriage counseling is now encouraged, and bookstores have dedicated relationship advice sections, giving us the tools to better communicate with our spouses. “Talking is the glue that holds relationships together,” says Dr. Walfish. “Feeling heard, validated and accepted, flaws and all, is everything.”
4. There was less focus on couple time.
When marrieds went out back in the day, it was more likely about reinforcing the husband’s career by schmoozing at dinner parties than keeping the romance alive, says Dr. Walfish. Today, couples recognize that date nights nourish the marriage. “For the family to thrive, you must care regularly for the marital couple,” she says. “It’s also a great message for kids to know that Mom and Dad need uninterrupted, warm time together.”
5. Women didn’t take much “me” time.
While husbands had their fishing trips and local group meetings, housewives had little contact with adults, says Dr. Wish—no girls’ nights out, beyond the occasional Tupperware party. While we probably juggle more than our mothers had to, today’s wives are wise to be social outside the family, says Elizabeth R. Lombardo, PhD, psychologist and author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. “Research shows women who have close friendships and spend time with their friends are healthier than those who don’t,” she says.
6. Women were more financially dependent on their husbands.
It wasn’t uncommon for the family’s bread winner—the husband—to control all the money and not include the wife’s name on the bank accounts. “Women had to stay with their spouses to keep eating and taking care of their children’s necessities,” says Dr. Lombardo. This put husbands in dominant positions. Today, not only are there more two-income households but also more joint accounts and individual accounts for women. “Financial independence allows us to decide what’s best for us,” says Dr. Lombardo. “Instead of feeling helpless, women are empowered.”
7. Divorce was taboo.
8. Sex was more of a chore for women than a pleasurable act.
Women were raised to see sex as a marital duty, and since more women were virgins when they married, husbands showed their wives the ropes, says Dr. Walfish. And what wives can get out of sex probably wasn’t the focus of those lessons. Modern women are more apt to have sex before marriage and expect reciprocity, Dr. Walfish says. Instead of viewing sexuality as negative, women want to be sexually active with their husbands, says Dr. Lombardo. And that’s good news for marriage. “Physical intimacy can deepen emotional bonds,” she says. Other perks include less stress and more confidence, in and out of the bedroom.
9. Parents were more involved in their children’s marriages.
Even if parents didn’t arrange their children’s marriages, they certainly had a lot of input as to how their sons and daughters lived, says Dr. Wish. Back then, Dad brought his future son-in-law into the family business, people lived closer to relatives and the extended family ate Sunday meals together, she explains. “These too-tight bonds can make wives feel their husbands are ‘mama’s boys,’ while husbands can feel their mothers-in-law rule the roost.” Now it’s all about setting boundaries, says Dr. Walfish. Couples can seek their parents’ counsel but are more comfortable making life decisions without their parents’ participation.
10. Women were more likely to submit to their husbands’ preferences.
“When you pretend to be someone you’re not, it depletes your happiness,” says Dr. Lombardo. That’s why women must “be comfortable saying ‘that doesn’t work for me,'” agrees Dr. Walfish. “Open, honest direct communication between partners is required to constantly learn about what feels good to your partner as well as to you.” There is one way we can mimic our mothers, though, adds Dr. Walfish: There’s something wonderful about occasionally giving in to your partner without a negotiation. He should afford you the same once in a while.