Questions about inequalities in marriage and the distribution of power within the relationship have long been a concern within sociology of family. In particular, ideas about historic shifts in the dominance of husbands/fathers within families have vied with feminist inspired views of the continuing significance of patriarchal control in both public and private spheres. The former perspective was captured well in Burgess’s (Burgess & Locke 1945) influential idea of a shift from ”marriage as an institution” to ”marriage as a relationship,” with some seeing the growth of ”companionate” marriage as a sure indicator that marriage would increasingly become a relationship of equality (Clark 1991). (See Young & Willmott 1973 for a particularly optimistic analysis.) Others, however, argued that marriage continued to be a structurally unequal relationship as a consequence of both the differential opportunities open to men and women, especially in the workplace, and the continuation of a highly gendered division of labor within the home (see, e.g., Delphy & Leonard 1992).
One of the earliest – and most cited – studies examining the distribution of power within marriage was conducted by Robert Blood and Donald Wolfe in Husbands and Wives: The Dynamics of Married Living (1960). In this, they report on a study in which over 900 wives were interviewed about the character of their marriage. More specifically, Blood and Wolfe were interested in finding out about who made decisions within the marriage, arguing that decision making was a clear indicator of the exercise of power and authority within any relationship. In the study, each respondent was asked questions about eight different decisions that couples and families typically made. These included such decisions as: what job a husband should take; whether or not to buy life insurance; and how much money the family can afford to spend each week on food. As a result of their findings, Blood and Wolfe concluded that decision making, and thus power, within marriage was based on the level of social and economic resource that each spouse brought to the marriage. Thus, the greater the differential in, for example, a spouse’s earnings, education, and status, the greater power that spouse would have to make decisions over different aspects of family life.
Although highly influential, Blood and Wolfe’s conclusions were questioned by many researchers concerned with marital power, on a combination of theoretical and methodological grounds. Overall though, the criticisms made of the study raised important questions about the nature of power in marriage and helped generate a far more sophisticated understanding of its exercise than had existed previously. Three levels of criticism were of particular moment. The first concerned the issues about which the respondents had been questioned. Seemingly simple, these criticisms of themselves raise important questions about what power is. As noted, Blood and Wolfe’s strategy was to ask about different decisions that were made by the couple – some frequent, some rare, some highly significant, others less so. A key question raised by the study was whether each of these decisions was equally indicative of the exercise of power within the marriage. And if not, how should it be weighted, and who should decide on this? For example, is the choice of food purchase as consequential as decisions about what apartment/house to buy or rent, or a spouse’s employment? If not, what is the value of asking about the less consequential decisions? How revealing of power are routine, everyday decisions? Moreover, within this model, how are ”non decisions” to be treated – that is, decisions over which there appears to be little disagreement or debate? As will be discussed below, this is a more theoretically significant question than it might at first appear to be.
The second criticism made of Blood and Wolfe’s study concerned the constitution of the sample. The issue here was not its size or scope per se, but whether studies of marital power could ever be valid if only one party to the relationship was questioned. Implicit within Blood and Wolfe’s methodology was the notion that decision making was an objective feature of marriage which would be reported on similarly by either husbands or wives. There was, in other words, limited recognition that there might be competing understandings and experiences of a marriage – a ”his” and ”her” marriage, in Bernard’s (1973) famous terms. Yet if husbands and wives were to have different understandings of decision making within their marriage, which of these is ”true”? Are either valid? And how is the researcher to decide between competing accounts? While, again, this seems like a methodological issue, it is actually more fundamental. It raises questions about the extent to which people’s perceptions of decision making are themselves constituted through an exercise of power rather than being, as Blood and Wolfe’s model implies, ”independent” of that power.
The third criticism, more radical than either of the above, calls into question the value of examining who it is who makes decisions as a means of measuring power. Instead of focusing on decision making, it argues that the crucial question is who benefits most from the decisions that are made (Lukes 2005). Those with power are the ones who win out, irrespective of the process by which a decision is reached. There are a number of elements to this in the context of marital power. First, it recognizes the importance of social order, or, in the case of marriage, gender order. That is, conventional and normative agreements often disguise the distribution of benefits between actors. Thus, routine ways of organizing domestic and familial life often hide the ways in which one party – typically husbands – benefits from this mode of organization at the expense of the other – typically wives. It matters little who decides on a particular issue if the decision that is reached sustains an already unequal status quo. Indeed, as Lukes (2005) argues, the most powerful are those who can rely on the less powerful to make decisions which consistently operate in favor of the more powerful. Delegation of these decisions, as well as a social order that makes some decisions so ”obvious” as to be non-contentious, can help legitimize the consequences of the decisions that are made.
In the light of this, analyzing who makes decisions in marriage is not of itself necessarily revealing of power. Moreover, open discussions and consultation are highly valued within con temporary ideologies of coupledom and partnership. Thus, as Edgell (1980) argued, joint, apparently democratic, participation within marital decision making can help legitimize the relational basis of the marriage, while still operating to secure a structurally embedded and (largely) taken for granted gender order which prioritizes men’s interests. Moreover, many routine decisions can also be ”delegated” to wives because in practice the decisions they reach are liable to be ones which further, or at least do not harm, the interests of their husbands. For example, decisions about family meals may be left to wives as part of their domestic responsibilities with the outcome that wives choose food they know their husbands prefer.
If these arguments are accepted, then it becomes questionable whether decision making can be used to reflect marital power in any simple fashion. Rather, what needs to be considered more is the distribution of material and non-material resources between the couple. Questions about who has access to more leisure time, who has more money for personal expenditure, whose needs are prioritized within the family, become more central than decision making per se. One illustration of this alternative perspective on power can be found in the research literature on money management within families. What these studies repeatedly highlight is the extent to which wives and mothers in poorer households routinely sacrifice their own needs in order to provide better for their husbands and children. Although decisions about balancing household income and expenditure are clearly theirs to make, this does not reflect the exercise of power in a conventional sense so much as the (delegated) responsibility of managing inadequate house hold budgets.
No matter what the context, power remains a highly contested and complex concept (Lukes 2005). Within the study of marriage, it is further complicated by dominant ideologies of personal commitment that imbue behavior with motives of love and altruism rather more than power and self-interest. So too, within contemporary constructions of “partnership,” divisions in domestic and paid labor tend to be viewed as negotiated familial and household organization rather than the operation of structural inequalities. The growth of cohabitation and what Cherlin (2004) refers to as the ”deinstitutionalization of marriage” complicates further the interpretation of power within ”marriage like” relationships. With hindsight, decision making approaches to the study of marital power are clearly subject to many questions and criticisms. Nonetheless, Blood and Wolfe’s study was seminal in opening up debate about the ways in which power is exercised within marriage and helping family sociologists understand its inherent complexities.
- Allan, G. & Crow, G. (2001) Families, Households, and Society. Palgrave, Basingstoke.
- Bernard, J. (1973) The Future of Marriage. Bantam, New York.
- Blood, R. & Wolfe, D. M. (1960) Husbands and Wives: The Dynamics of Married Living. Free Press, Glencoe, IL.
- Blumstein, P. & Schwartz, P. (1983) American Couples: Money, Work, Sex. William Morrow, New York.
- Burgess, E. & Locke, H. (1945) The Family: From Institution to Companionship. American Book, New York.
- Cherlin, A. (2004) The Deinstitutionalization of American Journal of Marriage and Family 66: 848 61.
- Clark, D. (1991) Marriage, Domestic Life, and Social Change. Routledge, London.
- Delphy, C. & Leonard, D. (1992) Familiar Exploitation: A New Analysis of Marriage in Contemporary Western Societies. Polity Press, Cambridge.
- Edgell, S. (1980) Middle Class Couples. Allen & Unwin, London.
- Lukes, S. (2005) Power: A Radical View. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.
- Young, M. & Willmott, P. (1973) The Symmetrical Family. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.