Why Men and Women Fight, Part 7: Capitalism

The last two posts discussed the software inputs and pressures that couples face as a result of the social and political movement for equal opportunities and equal rights for women. Another cultural input into our software system is the siren song of capitalism. I love my creature comforts, but the older I get, the more it makes sense to me to simplify, simplify, simplify. Receding into the rear view mirror are the days when it seemed important to keep up with the Jones’s.

Creature comforts are some of the gifts of capitalism, which took over during the Industrial Revolution, 1760-1840, and began to significantly improve the standard of living for the general population. Now, in the West, capitalism is so taken for granted, it’s hard to believe it’s a reason why men and women fight.

But a couple centuries ago, subsistence living was how the general population lived. It was a much simpler time, though much harder, with an average life expectancy of less than 50 years. These days, life is much easier, thanks to the technological boom that began in the Industrial Revolution.

In time, life became much easier for the homemaker, what with washing machines, microwave ovens, refrigerators, etc., and for some homemakers, interests in life outside the home began to grow. However, for a century or so, domestic management continued to be one of the only professions open to her. Then came WWII (1940-1945), and the homemaker found herself taking over her husband’s job in the factory when he went off to war. When he returned, she had developed a taste for the power of the paycheck.

Then, with the Feminist Revolution a generation later (1960+), a large enough number of women entered the workforce, increasing GDP at lightening speed, along with the standard and cost of living. Before long, many families felt the need for two incomes, just to provide what had become the new norm of necessities. Beyond that, having two incomes whet the appetite for material things—things that had been out of reach just a couple decades before.

Several decades later, many men have developed a taste for expensive toys, while many women thirst for an endless supply of items to beautify the home or enrich the lives of the children. Both come up with elaborate justifications for these “needs,” without recognizing that their compulsions and motivations are fed by the expectations and pressures of a capitalistic social structure.

Clearly, this is an extreme simplification of an enormously complex reality contributing to the bitter financial battles for couples. Most often, financial arguments mask other issues, like worth and power, but I work with an awful lot of couples who fight over the incredible stress that results from trying to have it all and be it all—a malady that particularly affects women who (have been led to?) believe that’s possible.

This belief and/or expectation drives many women to do double duty, working full-time outside the home and then coming home to work another full-time position afterwards. They often complain that their husbands don’t support their aspirations for a professional life because he only does one job: the one that gives him a paycheck, not the one that happens after he comes home. Much of the domestic work still remains up to her, she complains. He says that he would help more if he knew what to do, and if it would deliver what she promises: more availability for sex. When it doesn’t, he complains that he can never do enough.

Because men and women usually want to spend both their money and their time so differently, these battles can sometimes divide couples permanently.

What would happen if we took a step back from the expectations of our capitalistic culture and decided that we and our kids didn’t have to keep up with the Jones’s? That being present in relationship is more important than any possession we could purchase? That making a contribution in the world, or making a paycheck, is an important but not all-important measure of our total life? What if both men and women prioritized tending to relationships—being fully present with our loved ones, not taking them for granted—making sure that our contribution outside the home didn’t exceed our contribution within it?

I don’t know of anyone who has gotten to the end of life and said, “I sure wish I had worked more,” but I do know many who have gotten to the end of life and said, “I’m really sorry I wasn’t there for my spouse or my kids like they needed. I regret that.”

That’s the rub of capitalism. Free market trading can make life a lot easier and more enjoyable, but it just can’t buy what we most value in the end.


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