The Role of the Wife: What Does it Mean Today?
Well, this topic has certainly caused many a lengthy conversation in my circles over the last two weeks. From a multitude of articles online, I also note that this is something that has been accepted, debated, rejected and contested pretty much since its inception. My focus for this article is what the word ‘wife’, and the role it represents, actually mean to me. I also spoke with friends and family to get their view.
So, I have been a wife for just over 15 years now, but I have been fulfilling the role for nearly 25 years. My husband and I met when I was 16 and within the year, I knew he was someone I wanted to be with for a long time. Our relationship continued to blossom as our bond strengthened and I just knew he was ‘the one’. I had no visions of grandeur when it came to the wedding. I was so excited to become someone’s wife and leave any association to my maiden name behind. It was like I was being reincarnated into another woman who was better for being loved by one man, wiser and more grown-up somehow. I truly believed that people seemed to take a ‘Mrs’ more seriously than a ‘Miss’ because you had undertaken such a serious and important act and made a public commitment to one person for life. By those around me and in society at large, I was no longer seen as a maiden, but as a grown, mature woman, or at least that’s how it felt to me at the time. In hindsight, there were some who treated me no differently when I became a wife, but there were others that definitely did. Even as I write this, I can relive those feelings of utter joy that I experienced when becoming a wife, that I had a love and a connection to a man so profound that I wanted to show the world that I had chosen him over all others as he had with me.
In writing this article, my husband and I have had many discussions to really try and unpick what this term means. The sense of belonging coupled with the public display of our marriage through our wedding rings is something we both agree on. Contrary to the more historical view that still prevails in some marriages today, I am not owned by my husband to assert his dominance and will over. I am also not the ‘good little wife’ who stays at home to keep the house, provide meals, sex and children. No, those are stereotypes that we have both rallied against. That is not the foundation of our marriage and the words ‘to obey’ were decisively stricken from our vows. So, what am I? Do I know what it takes to be a good wife? Or is it more important to be a good mother?
My husband explained that for him he was proud to have a wife and be married because he wasn’t certain that was something he could achieve. He is proud to introduce me to others as his wife and there is a sense of territorialism about it. It’s like there’s a primal level to these introductions ensuring that everyone knows we are mated and not available nor interested in others. He also feels a sense of belonging and pride when I point out he’s my husband. However, in our relationship we see each other as partners for life. We are a team of two, a united front moving forth together through life holding each other, supporting each other as needed throughout.
Speaking with a colleague about her marriage and role as a wife, she agreed that she saw it as a partnership, but also that every relationship has a dominant role played by one partner. In her relationship, this role is held by her husband whom she ‘trusts with all the big decisions’. Whilst they still discuss everything they do together, such as recently buying their first house, she was happy for him to choose the house and the area they lived him as long as it had ‘a nice big kitchen’. While I choked on my cuppa, spluttering in surprise to hear this ‘good little wife’ stereotype trip from the mouth of a young woman in her early twenties, she went on to explain that she is certainly not the ‘little woman’ in their relationship and maintains she is confident and outspoken, moreover this acceptance of her husband’s dominant role comes from selfishness. “I’m not comfortable making big decisions, it’s really stressful and I’ve never been good at it. My husband and I trust and love each other and the decisions he’s made have always had good results, so why change that. He listens to what I want, but I’m happy for him to make the decisions.” She did also point out that he doesn’t stop her making the decisions in their relationship, but it’s more about her choice.
A close friend explained that in her experience of the term ‘wife’ in lesbian relationships has been used to “perpetuate the worst of the traditional stereotypes” such as inequality of power and a devaluing of the contribution of the woman. On reflection, I think that the same can be said of heterosexual marriages too. Women don’t have to bear the weight of societal expectation to behave a certain way just because they have taken on the role of a wife. This is just one of the many hats a woman may wear through her life and this shouldn’t feel like a lessening or devaluing of the woman, but rather an empowerment through love. Being a wife has meant sharing the experience of life with another, all its ugliness and beauty, all its dark days and light days, all of it. Yes, I do fall into that role of housewife, cleaner, cook and general runner of the household at times, but then my husband works many more hours earning to provide for our family, so it’s mutually accepted. Then as the hours even out again, so does the balance of running the house. Neither one of us shoulder the sole responsibility for any one area of our relationship, and for us that has and continues to work. There has been a definite step away from the historical narrative where a woman belonged to a man through marriage with little or no rights or say at all. There has been a blurring of roles and responsibility as a wife for some in today’s modern society, but not for all.
Does it matter? Not to everyone, no. We know people in long term relationships who choose not to be married, for whom ‘it’s just a piece of a paper’ and an ‘unnecessary expense’. There is a sense of antiquity to the term ‘wife’, but I don’t know what a societally accepted alternative to it would be, perhaps husband and wife will be replaced by partners for life.
Women in today’s society can define their role as a wife to whatever they want it to be so that it works for their individual relationships. We do have that power fuelled by our love and long-term commitment to another person. However, the narrative needs to change so that all women can feel empowered to define the role of ‘wife’ on their terms. Women should not succumb to societal expectations and definitions of what they should be. Now is the time for women to use their voice for love.