Two to tango?

I imagine many people will wonder why I even have to ask the question. Of course it takes two to tango, they answer. Especially today, in an age of real equality, husband and wife need to play their part equally. Both are responsible.

But I’m not so sure. I think our assumption that ‘equal’ means ‘equal responsibility’ is a fundamental error that ruins many perfectly good marriages. Equal responsibility means that, when the going gets tough, the temptation is to blame the other person for their bad attitude or bad behaviour. After all, it’s never my fault is it? How foolish and unnecessary to lose a marriage because each is waiting for the other to say sorry or sort things out or take responsibility.

Somebody needs to step up to the plate.

About twenty years ago, John Gray published his famous book ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus‘. His observation that men and women, in effect, come from different planets struck a chord with millions and made his book the bestselling relationship book of all-time.

I remember when I first read it, I never got past chapter three. Once I’d figured out the main story, I found myself disagreeing with him as much as I agreed. I applied my own observations and experience and concluded that men and women are indeed different, just not always in the stereotypical ways he suggested. Since then, Gray has been critiqued for overemphasising average differences between men and women that are often far from absolute. In other words, there may be differences but there’s also an awful lot of overlap.

There is one way in which men and women differ absolutely. Women have babies. Men don’t. And it is the consequence of this fundamental biological difference that distinguishes men from women.

Think about this logically. For a woman, the experience of being pregnant for nine months conditions a mother’s brain to think automatically about children without effort. In other words, having a baby growing inside for so long makes mothers think ‘baby, baby, baby‘. I’ve talked about this to thousands of mothers with new born babies across post-natal clinics and Surestart centres. Not one disagreed. In contrast, for a man, thinking about children is much more about choice. To some men, fatherhood comes easily. To the rest of us, fatherhood is something we have to think about actively.

Taking it a step further, because a mother is automatically thinking about her children all of the time, that is bound influence where her inclination lies, Her priority is going to be her children. Now this doesn’t mean for one second that mothers need to be chained to their children all day long. If mothers want to work, then good for them. They should have the same opportunity as fathers. The research suggests that some form of work tends to benefit mothers. And outside of the first year or two of a child’s life, the evidence that children either benefit or suffer from being looked after elsewhere is ‘mixed and modest’. So please be assured I am not painting mothers into one particular role.

Having said that, it’s not at all surprising that when one parent stays at home, it’s usually the mother. When one parent walks out on their children, we tend to tut-tut if it’s the father but we are horrified and shocked if it’s the mother. My point is that a mother’s unavoidable natural tendency is toward her children. Maybe there are exceptions. But this is the general rule. Happy mothers make happy families.

But what makes a mother happy? Is it a father who provides for his family? Is it a father who is involved with his children? Is it a father who takes over the childcare so his wife can work?

I’m not so sure about this either. In the 29 years of my own marriage, I haven’t noticed that the strength of our family depends especially strongly on any of these factors. Does it help that I earn some money? Of course. Does it help that I get involved with my children? Definitely. Does it help that I look after my children in order to free my wife to work? Undoubtedly.

But how we divide and manage our roles together isn’t what makes either of us happy or makes our marriage work.

What makes our marriage work is when I put Kate, my wife, first.

I put her first when

  • I show Kate that her well-being is my first priority
  • I am considerate about her worries
  • I am her friend and confidant
  • I make her feel secure by promising to be with her for the rest of her life
  • I talk about things we will do together in old age
  • I don’t put my work first
  • I don’t even put the children first
  • I do what it takes to share her burdens
  • I am gentle and kind

Am I a doormat? Not at all. Can my wife treat me like this just as well? Of course she can.

But don’t forget where her natural priority lies. When I shine a light on my wife, she can lift her eyes off our children and shine a light back at me. That’s how it works. In that order. That’s the challenge we face.

Yes, it takes two to tango. But watch a couple doing a really intimate tango, with real love and passion in their hearts, and you will see one partner gently leading and one partner being gently led.

It takes one to lead. Husbands, love your wives. And they will love you right back. That’s our responsibility, men.


2 thoughts on “Two to tango?

  1. Equality is a buzzword term, but is greatly misapplied often. Husband, wife, father, mother, all very different in objective, function, description and outcomes. Yet for some reason, we presuppose “equality” is a supreme order we must follow, defying nature and obvious differences, as distinctions between them (husband/wife,mother/father) are eliminated at all costs! Says who? The equality brigade! But equal opportunity, does not mean equal function. Equal value does not mean equal delivery.
    A dance is a good example. You don’t have two leaders in a tango! Does their different function mean they’re not equally valued, with equal purpose and outcome together, despite their very different roles?

  2. So taking your metaphor further – in dance it is the man that decides where to go and how to get there, of course his partner must assent and follow him, but nonetheless he is making the decisions.

    Your article has in a long winded way said: women are the ultimate bearers of responsibility for a couple’s child and her career is a nice to have extra.

    I am a believer in marriage and the good it does for children conceived and raised within one, but articles like this turn my attitude to organisations like the marriage foundation sour. The words and tone used are incredibly repressive and just hammer home the idea that kids are her responsibility, money is his.

    All the arguments around nature (breastfeeding/pregnancy etc.) are taken care of if the couple splits maternity/paternity leave. She takes six months off, then he does. The kid gets raised by its parents for the first year and each parent takes an equal hit to their career progression – meaning there isn’t an ‘obvious choice’ of who should quit their job to take care of children.

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