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Should You Worry If You Have An Old-Fashioned Marriage?

It seemed my husband and I had morphed into the roles we watched our own parents play.

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It was a typical Sunday afternoon in our house. My husband and teenage son were sitting on the couch watching football games together. I had just come home from grocery shopping and prepared for dinner that night. Suddenly, I was struck by how old-fashioned this arrangement seemed. Men in the living room, woman in the kitchen. Had my husband and I morphed into the roles we watched our own parents play in their marriages?

“The way we grow up does influence our own adult relationships and how we view the roles in a marriage,” explains Gail Saltz, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the How Can I Help? podcast from iHeartRadio. “Even when we look at our parents and think, I don't want that, sometimes unconsciously we are driven toward that model.”

My husband and I grew up in families where Dad was the primary breadwinner and Mom raised the kids while handling the household. Cooking, cleaning, groceries, most childcare — those were the jobs of the woman of the home. Car repairs, gardens and fixing stuff were the responsibilities of the man.

We never consciously said “men do this” and “women do that.” At the start of our marriage, we both worked full time and divided jobs at home based on preference. But after we agreed I would quit work to stay home with our kids, our roles shifted. We played to our strengths and what made sense, which fell into very traditional, old-fashioned roles. And although there were times when each of us felt the other wasn’t pulling their weight or that our contribution to the household went unappreciated, for the most part the division worked for us.

Saltz says, “There isn’t a right or wrong when it comes to a healthy marriage. If both partners are happy and feel respected by one another, that is all that matters.”

But what happens when something changes — or one partner decides that they feel forced into a role they don’t want or that the division of responsibilities isn’t equitable or appreciated?

When I was in middle school, my mother returned to work full time. But at home nothing changed. She still handled all of the cooking and cleaning she had before, and understandably she was resentful. Similarly, my mother-in-law would always shake her head in disbelief when my husband changed a diaper, remarking, “Your father never changed a diaper!”

I don’t know if my mother or mother-in-law ever spoke up about their discontent — or if they had that the men would have been receptive. “Sometimes one partner wants to make a change and the other isn’t willing, especially if things have been done a certain way for a long time,” explains Saltz. “But a partnership cannot thrive if both parties aren’t willing to make allowances and allow a partner to evolve.”

Balance of power can be another issue. If one partner feels their contributions are more important or valued, this can create an imbalance. This is especially true when it comes to finances. “Regardless of who is the primary earner or handles the bills, both partners must make financial decisions together and be informed about money matters,” says Saltz.

I witnessed the consequences of allowing one partner to be solely in charge of money when my father-in-law passed away. Fortunately, he did an excellent job and left his wife financially comfortable. But she knew nothing about their finances or how to handle money. (He gave her money weekly, so she didn’t even know how to use an ATM.) Her lack of knowledge added unnecessary stress in a difficult time.

“Too many times I’ve seen women who don’t have any idea what is going on financially in their marriage,” Saltz says. “It creates a vulnerable situation for them if there is a divorce or they are widowed.”

So does that mean an old-fashioned marriage is bad? “Not at all!” Saltz says. “There isn’t a right or wrong when it comes to a healthy marriage. It is all about what is right for you.” With the exception of finances (which should be dealt with together), responsibilities can be divided in any way that works. “If both partners are happy and feel respected by one another, that is all that matters,” Saltz says.

It is also important to keep lines of communication open. What works can change over time. Saltz says, “Our partners aren’t able to read our minds. Sometimes, we blame a partner rather than telling them, ‘I am unhappy. I want to do things differently.’ ”

That is true for me and my husband. Our roles have continued to evolve over time. While that afternoon he relaxed while I cooked, that evening I was on the couch in the living room while he cleaned up the kitchen. And I hope that while my kids see some aspect of our marriage that is old-fashioned, they also see two people who communicate their needs, value each other and are willing to make compromises.